In Bilbo’s footsteps

Hobbiton, by J R R Tolkien

The Fellowship of the Ring
by J R R Tolkien.
The Lord of the Rings Vol. 1.
HarperCollins 2012 (1954)

One of the delights of rereading a favourite book, even one enjoyed multiple times, is the possibility of discovering new aspects to enjoy, despite much remaining familiar. So it is with this, my sixth or seventh visit to Middle-earth in this form, and the surprise is that the tale has not yet grown stale.

What I once saw as longueurs to skim through or skip altogether are now like an overlooked drawer or two in a treasure chest, and even passages I thought I knew well are now revealed new-minted and shiny as if I’d once considered them poor tawdry things. Knowing Tolkien had the capacity to revise and recast and rethink his material over several years has served as a lesson, for me as a reader, to re-evaluate.

Though he was, against his inclination, persuaded to publish his epic fantasy in three volumes (thus potentially jeopardising the integrity of the whole) The Fellowship of the Ring, comprising Books One and Two, does in fact hang together as a narrative, its ending acting as a caesura before the next stage when we follow different individuals and interwoven timelines in The Two Towers. This therefore justifies any overview of the volume as an individual entity.

Map of Middle Earth by Chris Taylor and Chris Guerette http://www.ititches.com/middleearth/me.pdf

How does this first volume maintain its integrity? Because it by and large focuses on a single narrative strand featuring hobbits, with only brief digressions — as in Beowulf — to fill in background and supply explanations. In this way, and despite the author’s initial uncertainty about where his story was going, The Fellowship turns out to be a rerun of the plot of The Hobbit up to the arrival at Lake-town, Esgaroth. Though plenty of commentators have pointed out this sameness of plotting, it’s a feature worth emphasising and exploring.

Both narratives of course begin with a party, Bilbo Baggins’s first unexpected one and then the other, clearly “long-expected”. Thereafter a company of travellers including either Bilbo or Frodo set off on the road east, but what takes just one chapter in The Hobbit takes up most of Book One in The Fellowship. The earlier narrative takes us at a pace through Hobbit-lands (with good roads and one or two unnamed inns, perhaps The Prancing Pony and The Forsaken Inn), through the Lone-lands with evil-looking castles (perhaps including Weathertop) to a stone bridge, very likely the Last Bridge over the Hoarwell River. All these are duplicated, but now in copious detail for The Lord of the Rings.

In the chapter entitled ‘Roast Mutton’ in the children’s book Bilbo, the dwarves and Gandalf encounter trolls; these are the same trolls (now petrified) which Frodo and the other hobbits, along with Strider and Gandalf, come across in the Trollshaws. Then it’s off to the Last Homely House, Elrond’s Rivendell. A journey under the Misty Mountains features in both narratives, attacks by goblins and, later, wolves the counterparts of the epic’s orcs and Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. Rescue by eagles, safe lodgings (either at Beorn’s house, or in Caras Galadhon), and travels through forests (Mirkwood, or Lothlorien) end with a trip on a river to a body of water (the Long Lake, or Nen Hithoel before the Falls of Rauros).

But while Bilbo’s journey, despite the perils and hazards, is told with knowing whimsy, Frodo’s in Bilbo’s footsteps is altogether more serious. The often extempore ditties sung by dwarves or goblins, which to me severely strain belief in The Hobbit, are replaced by carefully crafted songs in The Fellowship which speak of deep tradition and ancient lore. Even Bilbo’s apparently newly-composed song shyly performed in The Fellowship to the company in Rivendell intimates his adherence to a bardic craft that excluded the kind of jejune rhymes that Tolkien had thought would entertain a young readership.

Towards the end of this first volume Tolkien eschews the path taken in the earlier work, though we note both involve a climactic battle, a distant mountain, and a quest which requires the renunciation of a treasured object. Tolkien found it hard to give up on what might be disparaged as “hobbit talk” and which dominates much of the earlier part of this volume; when we come to the breaking of the fellowship preceding the second volume there will be fewer opportunities for such inconsequential chats, either between Frodo and Sam (or indeed the other hobbits Merry and Pippin). The tale, already dark, assumes an almost unmitigated sombreness; conversations are ponderous, warnings portentous, histories profound.

This review has necessarily assumed a familiarity with the nature and content of Tolkien’s legendarium, for even non-fans of fantasy will to some extent be aware of the plot and personages of this cultural phenomenon. What I haven’t assumed is that you’re aware of my fascination for the intrinsic worth of this literary epic, but I hope that by now you may have gained just a little inkling of that.


#TalkingTolkien

Reviewed as part of #TalkingTolkien, my umpteenth read of The Lord of the Rings, and in anticipation of the #1954Club, a week dedicated to titles published in 1954, hosted by Karen and Simon and running from 18th to 24th April.

23 thoughts on “In Bilbo’s footsteps

    1. Good luck with your temporarily delayed departure, Steve, better late than never! I too have my trusty Barbara Strachey guide to hand even though, sadly, the glue binding has dried out and the pages are coming loose from each other.

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  1. What do you make of the huge amounts of time spent in the Old Forest, with Tom Bombadil, and then the barrow-wights? And the very drawn-out pacing of the start? I re-read this (partly in audio form but partly in book form) last year and was so struck by that, the amount of time Frodo spends in the Shire even when he knows he has to get going! I’m not surprised Jackson compressed pacing for the film but I think I can see what Tolkien is getting at–really driving in how much Frodo loves this place, how much it means to him, how much it will hurt to leave it and lose it.

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    1. Good points, Elle, maybe I should’ve said more about these in my review, but I wanted to keep it short-ish…

      I used to (mentally of course!) grind my teeth about Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, but this time around I really did warm to them, seeing them as remnants of a deeper magic in Middle-earth. The hobbits getting lost in the Old Forest was an echo of Mirkwood and a pre-echo of Lothlórien and Fanghorn, all aspects of Tolkien’s love of woodlands which, over the years, I myself have appreciated more and more. I discuss a bit of this here: https://wp.me/s2oNj1-spaces

      As for the Barrow-wight episode, I had vaguely thought about comparing it with Aragorn’s experience in the Paths of the Dead when I discuss aspects of ‘The Return of the King’ – I shall have to marshal my thoughts now that you’ve brought my attention to it, mainly about purpose. We’ll see! 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

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      1. Oh yes, I’d be very interested in a comparison between the barrow-wights and the Paths of the Dead! Especially as both seem intricately bound up with the ancient history of Arnor and Gondor…

        I also really have a lot of time for Tom and Goldberry. I know people find him annoying but I like his uncategorizable nature; without him, Middle-earth might seem too clear-cut. (I do enjoy the fan conspiracy theories, though, including “Bombadil is Morgoth and Goldberry is Ungoliant. This is a fun explication if you’re keen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mw9uKzy4GRs)

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        1. I regret to say I’ve yet to get into The Silmarillion, unfinished tales and so on – but thought that following this reread of LOTR I’d be more in the mood, and maybe mature enough, to enjoy and appreciate the earlier history of Middle-earth! Still, I’ll have a look at your link now, see if that will convert me… 😁

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  2. LotR is one of those series that has a place on my re-read list, but with so many other books also occupying that list, I haven’t re-read it nearly as much as you. I think if I get to it once a decade now, I am doing good….

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    1. Ah, I have a lot of decades under my belt and so have an excuse for all those rereads! I do hope you get around to a revisit soon. Btw I’ve read a few disappointed reviews of the LOTR prequel that Amazon will be streaming, so thank goodness I don’t subscribe to it…

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      1. After the hash that Amazon made of the Wheel of Time, I immediately gave up any hope of their LotR prequel. Two massively popular franchises, how could ANYONE screw them up, right? sigh.

        Thanks for the heads up. I’m a prime member so I’m sure I’ll be bombarded with the ads for it once it gets released.

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        1. I enjoyed the Jackson trilogy (well, about 90% of it) but was way less enamoured of The Hobbit – one film would’ve been enough for that needlessly drawn-out concoction. The Amazon Prime effort sounds to be like adaptations of Le Guin’s Earthsea books – misconceived, misguided and mismanaged. I’ll stick with the words, I think.

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            1. If you forget it’s about Le Guin’s Earthsea – and I first caught the film on TV after the credits so had no idea – the Ghibli film was okay (if a bit bleak) and only vaguely familiar. Not a patch on Howl’s Moving Castle though or Spirited Away

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  3. Good timing, Chris, as I’m just trying to pull some thoughts together about this. Although I haven’t read LOTR for decades, these are probably the books I’ve read more times than any others. And I get what you say about finding more each time. As for the pacing, I have steered away from the films as I have my own mental visions of Middle Earth – but it certainly worked for me!

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    1. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed the films on the whole, and especially the extended DVD edition, even though episodes (eg Tom Bombadil, barrow-wights, Farmer Maggot) were omitted. But even though some of the language and even phrases were kept for the dialogue I missed the lyrical descriptions and, more recently, the poetry. (At some stage I shall dedicate a post on the songs and poems – I think you’re partial to poetry, Karen, though I have to work at my enjoyment of it!)

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  4. Pingback: In Bilbo’s footsteps – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  5. I am planning to re-read these at some time, perhaps next year, depending on how I’m doing with the physical TBR by the end of the year. I’ve done them about three times, but not recently (I just asked my husband if he recalls me reading it when he’s known me and he only remembers me trying to read The Hobbit in French, and even that was over 16 years ago!).

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    1. I hope you do get to all the volumes, Liz, if not next year then at least 2024 when it’ll be 70 years since they started to be published!

      I’ve read them roughly every ten years or so since I got the first one-volume paperback in 1968, so this is the sixth read I’ve done – and still I find myself constantly surprised. The Hobbit in French, eh? I think I could manage that!

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  6. Your enthusiasm for these definitely makes me want to pick them up again soon. On my first visit, as I think I’ve mentioned before, I found these a little harder to get my head around, than the Hobbit which I did enjoy very much.

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    1. Yes, LOTR is a lot more complex than The Hobbit and demands more from the reader –even with this sixth read of the epic (as opposed to just two, three if I include the graphic novel, with The Hobbit) I’m finding so much that I’ve previously missed out on.

      Still, I feel I need to read about Bilbo’s adventures again as I don’t think I’ve given the children’s book the credit it deserves.

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