Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Blogging the Rings: Fellowship, Book 1, Chapter 1

So here we go! Drumroll, please...

A Long Expected Party

It's an interesting opening, and a little odd. We start somewhat distantly, at a remove from the characters. The opening seems very much shaped by the narrator's voice. It tells us about the characters rather than showing us directly. I think the first chapter, as a whole, does this to some extent, having at times the feeling of an overview. It's an element that would be fairly unusual in a contemporary novel. It provides the shape and feel of a tale being told, as opposed to a style that looks to create the illusion of the reader entering inside the story, seeing it from within.

I found myself conscious of the narrator, and the narrator's voice. He uses a lot of brackets (many, many!) throughout the chapter, often to frame humourous or quasi-humourous asides and interjections. This, for example, is from the second paragraph:

"...it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth."

The narrator seems overt, his personality clear, a certain reflectiveness apparent in his approach to the story, offering a wry and somewhat silly commentary. He uses the brackets again in the 4th paragraph, and the 6th, the 9th, the 11th... and so on. Interesting, I think, beause I have the feeling that the technique is not employed so aggressively through later chapters. We shall see...

The main characters, Bilbo (for this chapter, at least) and Frodo, are framed by the conversations of others, characters who will have no real place in the larger narrative. Interestingly, the conversation has a mirror in the second chapter. The first conversation is between Ham Gamgee, the "Gaffer", and the Miller, and the second is between Sam (the Gaffer's son) and Ted (the Miller's son), and only Sam among these plays a significant role in the novel. Each family offers one side of the story concerning Bilbo and Frodo, defining them through the two different polarities. Good and noble folk (of high social standing) on one side, and queer and strange on the other, people of eccentric and even dangerous habits.

And Bilbo is a little eccentric, if also kind and noble. He plans a joke during his party... to disappear before everyone using his magic ring. Bilbo hopes for laughter and amazement, but Gandalf asks "Who will laugh, I wonder?" I like this as an early example of Gandalf's clear sight, his wisdom, but also as the first bit of foreshadowing concerning the larger story - the Ring is more than it seems, and no laughing matter.

This is an important little bit, because the chapter is quite light-hearted. The narrative seems more intent on humour and history than building the story or dramatic tension. That touch of foreshadowing sounds a note that echoes through the next pages, setting up an expectation for Bilbo's "joke" at the party.

Frodo, surprisingly, plays only a minor role in the first chapter until its very end, yet in the early glimpses we learn a few things. Like Bilbo, he is more adventurous and curious than a normal hobbit, more inclined to wander, to explore beyond the normal boundaries. Yet we also see that he is more serious than Bilbo, less flighty and silly, less inclined to pointed jokes. Interesting, I think, because that mirrors, in many ways, the differences between the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

Yet here, at the start of the Lord of the Rings, it is still Bilbo's story, and the style reflects this. The tone, I think, is much like that of the Hobbit. Humourous, playful, adventurous and yet a little silly, the darkness often undercut. The story has not found its true pace yet, I think, and won't for many chapters. Here, I think, it is still the sequel to the Hobbit that was originally intended. The story goes far beyond that in the telling, and it is only at the end of the chapter that we get the first hints of this, the first hints that this is a different sort of story.

It begins with the first hints of the corrupting power of the Ring. Bilbo, the protagonist of the Hobbit, suddenly transforms. No longer the somewhat bumbling hero, both brave and a little silly, he becomes suspicious, bitter, greedy. If I recall correctly, from my readings, this was heavily shaped in revision, and I think shows some of the changes that will come, the differences between the two books. A thematic shift, the purposes of the books diverging.

Gandalf, too, is different, his power suddenly revealing him: "he seemed to grow tall and menacing; his shadow filled the little room." Gandalf's power too great for a small hobbit's burrow. "Seemed", usually such a weak word, here strikes me as appropriate, for Gandalf does not actually grow, it is only the sudden and vivid semblance of his authority made apparent. Bilbo says "I don't know what has come over you, Gandalf" and "You have never been like this before." All too true, and I think that's another harbinger of the changes between this book and its predecessor. Gandalf, too, has transformed, and will transform further.

Bilbo, though, gives up the Ring, despite its siren call, and leaves it for Frodo. We have an interlude, then, if you will, a return to the earlier whimsy, what with the gifts Bilbo has left with pointed jokes at the expense of the recipients. But Bilbo is gone, and Frodo now becomes the central figure, coping with the aftermath of the long expected party.

The chapter ends, though, with Gandalf admonishing Frodo to keep the Ring secret and safe - for the Ring is something more than it was thought to be. How much more? This is unknown, and yet of import enough to send Gandalf rushing away before he had intended to leave. This, I think, is important, a touch of the cliff-hanger to the chapter ending, and the first real hook into the larger story - the problem of the One Ring. And Gandalf leaves, bent as if under a great weight.

As I said, it seems an interesting chapter, and one that's a little odd. I think of it a bit like a camera, slowly zooming in. The further into the chapter we go, the closer the camera draws. We start with a wideshot. We see Bag End, and hear rumors of a party, and then a conversation about Frodo and Bilbo. Closer in we have the party and Bilbo's "joke". And then closer still we have Bilbo's choice to relinquish the ring. Closer yet we have the emergence of Frodo, and by the end we are at the foundation point of the story: the hobbit Frodo in possession of a mysterious and magical ring.

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