Friday, June 12, 2009

Blogging the Rings: Fellowship, Book 1, Chapter 3

The blogging marathon continues...

Three is Company

I've always been puzzled by this section of the story, because it seems to lack a little in logic. We have a basic scenario: Frodo has the One Ring, Sauron wants the One Ring, and if Sauron gets the One Ring darkness will overtake the world. Frodo must escape... and so, with the fate of the world in the balance, Gandalf and Frodo decide that it's okay to wait through the summer and leave in the autumn, after his birthday. Even though they know Sauron knows about the Ring being found and who has it (from Gollum).

This seems atypical of Gandalf, at the least. And puzzling as a story choice. Not only does it seem illogical, but it again undercuts the tension that had just been built up in the previous chapter. What's more, Gandalf hangs around for a bit, doing... what? I can't think of anything particularly useful he'd be doing for these two months. And then he decides he must go, must search out information. Why now? Why not two months ago? Again, it seems puzzling, especially when it risks him being unable to get back in time, which turns out to be the case. I get the vague feeling of deus ex machina here. Escaping the Black Riders, the Old Forest... these won't work if Gandalf is there, so Gandalf has to go. But the decision seems more authorial than character related. Could just be me, but this is one of those areas that feels a little clumsy and poorly workedd out. The destination for the journey, at least, seems well chosen: Rivendell. As Gandalf says, "Towards danger; but not too rashly, nor too straight."

And the one good thing about Gandalf leaving is that it creates a tension when he fails to return. This helps, I think, because the journey still feels a bit like a lark. They're going to go out tramping towards Buckland, no real rush, a few picnics on the way... The absence of Gandalf at least inserts a sliver of fear and uncertainty - what could keep a powerful wizard from returning as he had promised?

We also have the first appearance of a Black Rider, an overheard conversation between it and the Gaffer. The Gaffer's a little shrill and put out, apparently... but what strikes me here, and through all the appearances of the Black Riders in this section, is how different they seem from what they become later in the story. The Gaffer is a little "put out", a description that does not exactly strike terror in the hearts of anyone.

I think this is quite interesting, because when he first wrote this Tolkien didn't know what the Black Riders were, or what role they would play in the story. They just sort of showed up, as much of a surprise to him as to the hobbits. And I think a little of that remains here, in these early appearances. The snuffling, as if the Riders are sniffing after Frodo... a little odd, particularly when their ethereal nature is later revealed. Why would a wraith sniff? And one rider gets down and starts to crawl towards Frodo... curious, and a little disturbing, yet such actions make the Black Rider seem much different than the Black Riders who attack on Weathertop, or the terrible Nazgul, as they come to be called, who haunt the battlefields of the later story and whose voices are embodiments of terror and despair. The Black Riders here seem half-finished. We do have an instance where Frodo feels compelled to put on the Ring, and this is important in showing the Black Riders connection to it, and the indirect seduction of both Sauron and the Ring. But the other elements, to me, seem a little more like the original sketchwork, rough figures whose aspects have not yet been tailored to their true natures (as later revealed).

There are some curios, too, in this chapter, like the fox whose head Tolkien playfully dips into: "'Hobbits!' he thought. 'Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There's something mighty queer about this.' He was quite right, but he never found out any more about it.'" It's a silly bit, really, something that would be much more at home within the Hobbit than the Lord of the Rings. It's tonally quite at odds with most of what is to follow. Another one of those little signs, those lingering remnants, that indicate to me that this story hasn't quite found its way yet.

Perhaps this is a good time to touch on the POV, which is basically an Omniscient voice, though a carefully controlled one most of the time (fox aside). Tolkien often doesn't dig for deep psychology, but shows thoughts and moods where they might illuminate certain actions. He does not dip into the thoughts of everybody, but neither does he limit himself to Frodo. It's an opportunistic sort of voice, really. Fairly surface, usually centered on Frodo, but willing to wander when the need or inclination arises. It's a sort of voice that could easily become cluttered, with that feeling of head hopping, but I think his judicious use of it prevents this. The fact that he holds to the surface so often seems to allow the voice to wander a little without provocation. And even when digging a little deeper, he does not seem to wish to go too far. Perhaps, like the Mines of Moria, it is dangerous to dig too deep and too greedily...

Another thing I found interesting is the hobbit class structure. It seems much clearer here than it is in the movies. Pippin says "'Sam!" Get breakfast ready for half-past nine! Have you got the bath-water hot?' Sam jumped up, looking rather bleary. 'No, sir, I haven't sir!' he said." Pippin is playful here, and since they are in the middle of the woods there is obviously no bath water. Yet Sam jumps up very earnestly. It's an interesting point to remember, I think, that Frodo, Pippin and Merry are all young gentlemen (or gentlehobbits... but you get the idea), while Sam is basically a servant. Frodo is the master of Bag End, seemingly the richest and nicest home in the capital of the Shire, while Pippin and Merry are, respectively, the younger relations of the Old Took and Master Brandybuck, the heads of the two wealthy (and almost sovereign) clans of the Shire. Sam is a gardener. It'll be curious to see how this element plays out through the story.

We also have a lot of the songs and poems in this chapter. I've always felt the use of them to be a little overdone throughout the story, but clearly Tolkien loved this element, and made use of it whenever possible. It certainly provides a sense of culture, a sense of the characters beyond their necessary movements within the plot. But there really are a lot of these instances. My feelings here are likely, though, a matter more of subjective taste than anything else. Anyone else have a take on the poems and songs that appear so often?

The chapter concludes with the Elves, who they meet on the road. Both playful and serious... we see the strange dichotomy of the elves, their mingled joy and sadness. Gildor offers advice... and the absence of Gandalf is touched upon again, and our concern heightened by Gildor's worry. And the Black Riders, too, are mentioned, for even the Elves fear them... and for the hobbits it is better to know too little than be swamped by the fear that would accompany the truth of full knowledge. And so while the chapter ends in safety, worries and fears have been carefully placed to create tension and interest, to hook the reader into the next chapter. This, so far, has been a bit of a pattern. Slow, more distant openings, after which the chapter tightens and the tension rises, finishing with concerns that will be carried into the next scene.


Deb Salisbury, The Mantua Maker said...

I've wondered about the 'missing' two months, too. None of them seemed to feel there was an immediate threat - until the Black Riders showed up at the farmer's house.

And all the singing and poetry... I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I've skipped it every time. Mea culpa.

The hobbit class structure is very old British. I visited as an exchange student in 1975, and many people *still* reacted like Sam and Pippin.

I'm finding it fascinating to read your reviews. You keep pointing out things that bothered me, but I couldn't put a finger on *why*, but you also tell me why certain things worked better than I would have expected.

Ink said...

Glad it's proving worthwhile. I'm enjoying it so far myself, and knowing I'm going to write about each chapter has kept my attention nicely perked throughout. And just think, all the best stuff is yet to come...

Ms Kitty said...

The last time I read LOTR I wondered how it would have turned out if Tolkien had a word processor.

I get the feeling that at this point he is still writing a sequel to The Hobbit that turns into a WWII epic.

Which makes me wonder what year he started writing, and what influence world events had on the story itself.

My impression of the "wait until autumn" is that Gandalf is waiting for Strider to return from some errand - and Gandalf is called away by Saruman.

All of that could be Tolkien adding things later to cover his tracks. If I recall correctly he was a member of a writer's group in Oxford who egged him on quite a bit.

This blog has tweaked my memory - not sure if my recollections are at all accurate. They may not be.

I'm enjoying reading this, thanks Ink!

Ink said...

Yeah, it was an interesting writing process, and took him many years. Some people tried to show how the story was allegorical (WWII), but Tolkien denied this vehemently. It is, though, shaped by the war, I think, and by his own experiences in WWI. And he wrote and rewrote the first part of the book many times, and it took quite awhile for him to really find the story. I think that shows, too, and something I'll probably talk about in the chapters to come.

And yup, he and C.S. Lewis were in an Oxford writers group (they were both professors there). Called (drumroll, please) the Inklings. Such a good name (cough cough). I thought it would be a good name for a bookstore, and since I first got into reading and writing when my Mom forced me to read the Hobbit back when I was seven or eight... well, it seemed like a nice tip of the hat. Plus, you know, it made me think of little word gremlins running around...

Ms Kitty said...

Aha - and I was thinking it was all coincidence. There were a couple of other Inklings - not sure I recall the others. It seems there were four.

Damyanti said...

Great post, and now I have to follow this entire book, chapter by chapter, on your blog.

I agree about the two months...and notice how it was cut short in the movie.

I like your comments on the voice, and since my POVs are a bit of a instinctive choice right now, I would love to read more analysis of LOTR on those lines. Great work, Ink.

Ink said...

Luckily, there's some interesting things about his voice and style coming up in the next few chapters...

Matthew Rush said...

I don't care too much for the songs, though they do fit with the culture. I generally dislike songs in books because without the tune it's very difficult to judge or even read properly.

As far as the black riders being simpler and less menacing in the beginning I have noticed that before and I tend to like it. I think Tolkien did that on purpose but then again I tend to deify his works and I could be wrong.

If you look at those books that Christopher Tolkien compiled from his father's notes it is clear that JRR left a lot of loose ends sometimes so it is possible that it is not intentional but I still think it makes sense.

To me it's as if the riders can manifest themselves in different way and at first they come into the Shire making every attempt to conceal themselves as much as possible. I also think it fits with the whole progression of the Hobbit's understanding of all the evil in the world. At first they are oblivious and it seems to shelter them from certain things: the power of the ring, the sting of the morgul blade and so on.

I also think the ring and its power to corrupt is a powerful metaphor for addiction. I'm not saying JRR did that on purpose - he probably didn't - but it works very well nonetheless.