Novel * J.R.R. Tolkien * The Decline and Fall of the Third Age * 1954
I didn’t like it right away. This was a cause of some genuine distress when I was ten years old, because I liked pretty much everything right away. I was one of those kids who would read pretty much anything with two covers and pages in between, you see, and rarely let things like “quality” or “worth” get in the way of my reading. To my credit, most of what I read was pretty good. I had my mother, who at that time was my chief book recommender, and she rarely let me down. I had just finished The Hobbit, and was excited about a new fictional world in the way only an imaginative kid could ever be. I mean, come on. There were sassy Dwarves, and a boss wizard, and a fucking dragon! That book was incredible. I think I read it twice in the space of a month. And then here comes Mom, The Book-Keeper, with wild claims of more Hobbit? Christmas was bullshit, the knowledge that the story kept going was probably the best gift I ever got.
And then I didn’t like it, and I was crushed. Where The Hobbit was quick to adventure, Dwarves and trolls, The Fellowship of the Ring was a birthday party and long walks in fields. Bilbo is here I guess, but he’s old and lame now. Gandalf shoots off some fireworks and then disappears. So, so disappointing. So I stopped. I complained. My mom said to give me it a chance, that it gets better. I was skeptical. Even though her track record was mostly aces, she had failed before. I loved Harriet the Spy, but The Long Secret was a total girl book, so no thanks. But I tried, and I got up to the point where Tom Bombadil is prancing around and everywhere it’s just songs, songs, songs. Ugh. So I complained again, and my mother, bless her heart, gave me the key. “Just skip the songs, dummy.” That may or may not be an actual quote, it was a long time ago. Regardless, to this day I mostly don’t read the songs. It’s okay.
The point of all this is simple: I understand. The Lord of the Rings is easy to bounce off of. The Fellowship of the Ring, the entry point, is glacial in pace. If you came in hot off the antics of The Hobbit, the poky nature of the story is a shock. If you really enjoyed the (fantastic, amazing, other superlatives) films and want to check out the source material, you will almost certainly hit an initial wall. If you don’t have the patience to wait around until the swords come out and the orcs start raiding, well, I can’t blame you. Yet I will say this: you’re missing out. I’m an impatient person, probably borderline A.D.D., and I get fidgety if I’m not engaged. It took a couple tries, but eventually I realized what Tolkien’s game was. I stopped pushing up against the endless descriptions, the allusions to a vast history about a world that never existed. There came a point where I just let all that wash over me.
Now, when I go back to this series and pick up Fellowship, I not only know what I’m in for, I look forward to it. I love The Shire. I enjoy spending the time to revel in its bucolic splendor: lazy brooks, meandering roads, and orderly fields. I enjoy walking with Frodo and his hobbit bros as they camp and tromp around on their way to Brandy Hall. Most importantly, I appreciate the reason for this incredibly slow burn. Without this long, loving look at The Shire, the rest of the Ring-bearer’s journey would lose a certain gravitas. The Shire is one of the last peaceful, prosperous lands left in Middle-earth. The book is structured to really steep the reader in this warm, happy land before thrusting them out alongside Frodo into the harshness of the greater world. Middle-earth is a grim place full of wonders, but no matter how long and difficult the journey ahead, the reader will always have pleasant memories of The Shire within them, not unlike Frodo and Sam.
If you’re unfamiliar with the plot and overall concept of The Lord of the Rings, well, I don’t know what to tell you. It’s the grandfather of fantasy fiction, and you can (and should) easily go watch the movies. At heart, it’s an epic quest. There is a great evil, powerful and terrible. There is no way for the forces of good to overcome this evil through feat of arms. The powers of the world are too diminished, the powers of the Dark Lord are too great. There is only one last hope for victory, slim as it might be, and that is for a lowly hobbit to stealth his way into the very stronghold of evil and eliminate the Ring of Power, which would destroy its maker, the Dark Lord Sauron. The Fellowship of the Ring is the first part of the journey. Adjust your expectations, don’t rush, and go enjoy it.
Make no mistake, The Lord of the Rings is a lament. This is a long tale about an old world long in decline. There are endless references to a long, detailed, history that the reader cannot possibly be expected to understand. Don’t worry about it, Fellowship is here to ease you in gently. Those allusions exist because Middle-earth is old beyond reckoning, and the richness of the world is the bedrock of the story being told. Yet these details, which I actually find fascinating and worthy of attention by themselves, are mostly present to anchor the tale of the Ring. Tolkien did an unfathomable amount of world-building – he created what is arguably the most well-realized fantasy world of all time – and most of it is invisible to the reader. This is despite the fact that characters keep throwing out names and singing songs about shit that happened a thousand years ago. Obviously, the lore and history of the One Ring is important, and as such it’s very prominent. Everything else is there to create a sense of age.
Since Tolkien put all this incredible work in – he was a linguist and a scholar, which is evident considering the multiple languages he straight up invented – Middle-earth feels real. Once you accept that Elves are an immortal super-race, and that the important characters have like six names each, everything else just feels factual. Not only that, but that vast history becomes a weight upon the world. The current civilizations, with the possible exception of The Shire, are all in the late stages of decline. Even without the return of Sauron and the rise of Mordor, the world is moving on. The Elves are all leaving, and without them the natural world seems to be devolving into wilds and waste. Once the hobbits leave Bree, they wander for weeks in the empty lands. It’s a desolate, empty country, and is seemingly indicative of the state of Middle-earth everywhere.
Besides this endless emptiness, we’re constantly peppered with references to the former glory of the world. As the hobbits wander aimlessly through the Old Forest, we are told repeatedly that this vast, frightening forest is but a remnant of its former size. Then, after we chill with old Bombadil, the hobbits end up in the Barrow-downs, which again are the ancient remnants of a former civilization. Everything presented here is either dead or in decline. The vast, glorious kingdoms of the North are long since fallen, and creepy-ass wights are the only remainder. Once Aragorn shows up, himself a living relic of the past, the constant eulogizing only increases.
Then comes Rivendell, one of last remaining strongholds of the Elves, who are a living reminder that everything must succumb to entropy and diminish. Elrond, who it should be remembered was totally there when the Ring was cut from Sauron’s hand like a bazillion years ago, is no longer a vital warrior. Whatever power he has is greatly diminished from the glory years. I mean, Frodo’s mission is of the utmost importance to every living thing in Middle-earth, and this guy can’t be bothered to leave his house about it. This is because his time, and that of all Elves, is rapidly coming to an end. The light and glory that the Elves brought to the world are fading, and that which is left after the War of the Ring (regardless of the outcome) will be lesser.
Once the Fellowship moves south, the theme of decline and decay continue unabated. Once again the world outside of tiny enclaves of civilization (such as Bree and Rivendell) is vast and desolate. The company travels for weeks without encountering another living being. They pass through melancholy lands like Hollin, which once was the home of Elven communities and boundless life. Eventually they come up on the Mines of Moria, and we’re reminded of the once-glorious city of Dwarves that once lived there. Not only this, but of the free and open society that was built between the Elves of Hollin and the Lords of the Mountain. The scene before the doors of Moria is haunting while still retaining sense of a sad twilight. As Gandalf tries to figure out the door, the company must pause on the old, old road under the sentinel trees of the elves. The password, once Gandalf realizes it, is simply “friend.” The world was a happier place, then, you see. Now it’s all just darkness and huge tentacle-monsters and goddamn Balrogs.
Once Gandalf goes full badass-self-sacrifice and the company escapes the remnants of the once-glorious Moria, we’re thrust immediately into another land in decline, the Golden Wood of Lothlorien. In these dark days of decline, this once open, peaceful land of Elvish glory is now a paranoid, closed enclave. Anyone who dwells outside – save perhaps important wanderers like Aragorn and Gandalf – regards Lothlorien with suspicion and derision. It has become a land of mystery, unknown to the outside world. Yet despite shutting itself off from the greater entropy of Middle-earth, Lothlorien is still in decline. The company arrives in winter, and is told that the glorious golden forest will never blossom in springtime again. And then we get Galadriel, the greatest of the High Elf Ladies (she bears one of the Three Rings of Power, after all), who is great and powerful in her own right, but who like Elrond knows her time is at an end. An important moment:
“And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!
She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illuminated her alone and left all else dark. She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! She was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.
I pass the test, she said. I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.”
So, first of all, I would absolutely love Galadriel and despair. Sometimes the language of Tolkien’s storytelling is needlessly ornate and overwrought, I know. However, sometimes it really packs a punch. Look at her speech! Holy shit, Galadriel is amazing. I totally get why all the characters are totally in love with her – and they didn’t even get to see this! It’s the mere potential of power they’re attracted to. Secondly, she gives up this chance at ultimate power in order to fade from the earth with the rest of her people. Middle-earth is rapidly losing its capacity to house Elves, and when it does it will be a less magical place. Literally and figuratively.
Before I move on to The Two Towers, which is still about entropy and decay, but specifically about Saruman and the destruction of the natural world, I will address a common misunderstanding about The Lord of the Rings. This story is not an allegory. Not even a little bit. It’s tempting, considering what was going on in the world when the story was being written, to point to Sauron and go “Hitler” and to the Free Folk of the West and go “Allies.” But The War of the Ring is not World War Two. The orcs aren’t Nazis. Gandalf is not Churchill. First of all, Tolkien comes right out and says so. Generally, you can dismiss what the author says about their own work, but in this instance it makes sense. To label The Lord of the Rings as an allegory is to dismiss the massive amount of work Tolkien did to create an entire world, with a thousands-of-years-long history and its own languages and all. Obviously there are parallels between Middle-earth and the history of humanity. That’s rather the point. All empires collapse, and history rolls on. That’s what the Lord of the Rings is about. Cleary Tolkien was not untouched by the nightmare of the mid-20th century, but this had more to do with the advancement of technology and industrialism than a specific narrative about World War II. We see this most clearly in The Two Towers and beyond, so we’ll get to that next time.