Blind Read Through; The Fellowship of the Ring, revisited
“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken
The crownless again shall be king.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we take a nostalgic step backward and revisit an old classic, “The Fellowship of the Ring!” Though this is not quite a Blind Read, but it has been years since I’ve read these books. Years ago I remember reading them in preparation for watching the movies as they came out in the theater, so “some things that should not be forgotten, were lost” as it were.
I want to start this week by saying how much I missed when reading the books. They are jam-packed with history and I’m amazed at how well the novels were accepted at the time of publication because there is so much more you gain by reading the Silmarillion, which was published years after the original books were, and posthumously to boot. This time around the world seems so much more alive and complete than the first time because there is so much context present, just not explained. The world of Middle-earth is considerably more complex than the simple Hero’s Journey I had understood when I first read through it. But we’ll get into this in a minute.
In this essay, we’re only going to cover “The Fellowship of the Ring” as I’m going back through and re-reading the Lord of the Rings to gain a renewed experience after reading through the Silmarillion. Tolkien (according to his son and editor, Christopher) initially wanted to publish The Silmarillion in conjunction with The Lord of the Rings, and I can now understand why.
I remember reading the books some twenty years ago and being confused and turned off by the constant name-dropping and song, which didn’t make sense to me. I had no context to understand who Beren was, what Gondolin was, or why I should care about Eärendel. What I was missing was how full these details made the world of Middle-earth. There was a lush history beneath the surface, and I just hadn’t been privy to it to understand how that history created the world in which the characters lived. It truly makes all the difference.
The beginning of the novel has much the same charm as The Hobbit. It is evident that Tolkien had a much larger story in mind, but early on, the prose is more attuned to the “Children’s story” that was The Hobbit. It’s not until Tom Bombadil that that theme begins to change.
I remember hating Tom when I first read the books because, by his nature, he was always happy and highly overpowered. He and his wife dance around and make merry while some grave tidings are happening in the world, which is a significant call back to how Tolkien wrote The Hobbit. But the brilliance of this section of the book marks a change in the tone. Tom represents the last time in these books that the Hobbits needed rescuing when they don’t try to save themselves. In every other conflict in these books, after this point, the hobbits fight. Of course, they are outmatched at times as they need assistance, but against the Barrow Wight, they only wait for a savior instead of trying to do something about it.
Tom saves them and sends them on their way, and it’s at that point the merry-making and song end. Yes, there are many songs in the book beyond Tom’s section, but their tone is somber, and if you understand the history, they call back to the previous record and why the world has become what it has become. It even covers characters’ motivations, Like Aragorn, when he recites the Lay of Beren and Lúthien.
Later, when they get to the Council of Elrond, Tom Bombadil comes up again. They talk about potentially giving him the One Ring to protect it because he is so old and powerful. It seemed ridiculous when I originally read it, but after reading about the Valar and how they stayed out of the affairs of the Children (Men and Elves) it makes much more sense that they would try to get one of those powerful beings to protect it.
I was hoping to get more of a history of Bombadil in The Silmarillion, but how the Council spoke of him leads me to believe that he truly may be one of the Valar because of how he is described as too old and too powerful to care about the One Ring. If it was left in his care, he might forget about it or lose it. Gandalf, Saruman, and Sauron are all Maiar, so even beings of that power are indebted to, and scared of, the Ring’s strength. So Bombadil has to be one of the Valar who decided to stay on Middle-earth.
I look forward to reading his book (“The Adventures of Tom Bombadil”) when I get to it in the histories.
Bombadil doesn’t appear in the rest of the books, which leads me to believe that this was a transitional period in the novels. Tolkien wanted to keep his readership from the Hobbit, but he wanted to transition into something more meaningful and bold.
It isn’t until we reach Gandalf dying in Moria that the books finally feel much more realistic. The tone of the books shifts; the lays they recite are more lamentations than happy-go-lucky ditties that Tom Bombadil recites. The book shifts from a fun “children’s story” to a natural history of Middle-earth.
Elements of the Silmarillion are spread throughout the ending, but the stories they tell are direr and more immediate than what comes at the beginning. Tolkien does a masterful shift in the narrative from “Concerning Hobbits” to the “Breaking of the Fellowship,” We are left with desperation and an overwhelming desire to find out what happens to our friends in the next book.
As I mentioned above, when I read these books the first time I thought the whole point was to have a Hero’s journey, much like Joseph Cambell describes (though that is probably a whole series of essays to do at a later time). What we actually get is a wholly formed world. A World that is almost a character in and of itself. The characters are adding to that world and that history, but the book is not solely about them. It’s more about how their actions form the history of the world and not the other way around. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that has such a deep and realized history before, and I have to say I’m enjoying Tolkien like I never had previously.
Join me next week as we jump back into the Book of Lost Tales, part 1, and review “The Music of the Ainur.”
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