Re-Reading “The Lord of the Rings”

fellowshipI wrote an A-Level essay once about how JRR Tolkien cared almost exclusively about the shape of hills. Not unsurprisingly, I did it to be contrary; but I think, too, that my Lord of the Rings reading had always been fraught with self-inflicted difficulty. My first exposure to LotR was Ralph Bakshi’s weird, but not entirely unsuccessful, 1978 animation-and-rotoscope adaptation of its first two volumes. Of course, I’d already read The Hobbit and enjoyed it immensely; and, knowing no better, my child’s brain immediately hit on the idea of trying to find the point in this wildly different text of Tolkien’s at which Bakshi’s film had left off: why read it all, I reasoned with charming ignorance of the novel’s discursive unadaptability, when I’d already seen half of it.

This was a fateful choice: not only did I start The Two Towers only to realise I knew the thrust of what happened; the separation between the text and its adaptation left me foundering. The Return of the King, with all that cod-Biblical stuff picking up threads almost entirely dropped by Bakshi, was even worse. Having confused my reading entirely, the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring read bizarrely, Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday existing in a different prosodic universe to the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.

So when I write not that I’m re-reading Lord of the Rings, in a real sense I’m reading it for the first time: or at least, doing so in the right order for a change. It’s also been many years since I cracked the spine on a Tolkien book, and in those years the impossible happened: a successful adaptation of his work appeared. The first thing that has surprised me about Fellowship‘s first book, however, is how of a piece it is not with Jackson’s Rings movies, but with his Hobbit trilogy: travelling from Hobbiton to Rivendell, Frodo and the gang are almost constantly referring to Bilbo, actually walk past the trolls of Tolkien’s earlier novel, still carved in the stone of Gandalf’s spell, and the wizard himself strains beyond all telling to retcon The Hobbit in order to fit this newer, darker narrative.

The story of the writing of The Lord of the Rings, the way in which it began as a sequel to The Hobbit but grew in the telling, is well known. Before the deterministic epic first beings to appear around Weathertop (“I dwelt there once,” Aragorn says of Rivendell, his syntax suddenly shifting, “and still I return when I may”), Fellowship is as interested in The Hobbit as Jackson’s second trilogy is indebted the other way around: all the forward references in The Desolation of Smaug – the appearance of Legolas, the use of Athelas, the new focus on the Necromancer – shares more with the opening of Tolkien’s great epic than many of the nay-sayers might like to recall. Like the movies, Fellowship is slow and sluggish with referential baggage.

It’s been so long since I read these books that I’d also forgotten how episodic they are: the journey from Hobbiton to Bree takes a look time, and the hobbits spend a number of consecutive nights with an array of characters, from Farmer Maggot to Tom Bombadil, Barliman Butterbur to Gildor the High Elf. In this context, the most prominent theme of Fellowship’s first book is kindness, is hospitality: each of these characters shelter Frodo and his friends from the darkness of the outside world; each thus takes on a burden, but in doing so relieves Frodo briefly of his greater one. Gildor protects the hobbits from the Nine, Bombadil from barrow-wights; Butterbur albeit belatedly reconnects the travellers with Gandalf, whilst Farmer Maggot shows quite exceptional bravery in the face of the Black Riders (who in truth only come to resemble the terrible ringwraiths of our memory at Weathertop).

In contrast, Strider – or, since the secret of his identity is kept for only a few pages,  Aragorn – commandeers the hobbits’ quest, and it’s at this point that the narrative begins to change. By the time that Frodo is galloping, on Glorfindel’s horse, away from the Nine, we have entered a very different novel. Where Farmer Maggot or Tom Bombadil belong to a pastoral world in which everyday virtues can persevere against evil, by the time the hobbits cross the Bruinen they are in a Manichean world in which only elf-magic can heal you of a wound by a Morgul blade. This all happens gradually, reducing the variation between what are otherwise forbiddingly uneven tones and moods.

None of which, of course, are original observations about this most read of novels. But for a reader who once bounced off The Lord of Rings more times than hobbits might slightly repetitive be rescued at the last minute by the arrival of an expected friend, the ease of the journey from Hobbiton to Bree came as something of a surprise. This first book is undoubtedly still a structurally unusual effort (Gandalf goes on for pages about Gollum’s story – why is this needed now, why are his exhortations to Frodo to be brave not kept, as Jackson kept them, for later in the narrative?); but those films are now separated entities from the books themselves … and reading a book from beginning to end, it turns out, isn’t always so bad an idea.

There’s still a buckletload of stuff about the shape of hills, though.

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