I know that The Lord of the Rings is not a true trilogy. Any self-respecting nerd knows that. It is one long novel (very long, actually) that is typically separated into three volumes. My writing a review of the first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, may be considered premature. You may think that I should wait and write one review of the entire work as a whole.
I’m not going to wait. Let me tell you why.
As I already said, this is a really long novel. During the decades that have passed since I first read it, I’ve forgotten more about it than I remember. I’m doing a more leisurely critical reading this time around, and my concern is that, by the time I finish reading The Return of the King again, I will have forgotten some of the things I wanted to say about this volume. Sticking to my current reading plan of about a chapter a week, I won’t turn the last page of LOTR until the first week of June 2018. That’s a long time from now.
I’m enjoying J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterwork even more deeply than I did when I read it as a teenager. The first time I read LOTR, I was interested only in story. I plowed through all three volumes in a short period of time. This time, I’m savoring it, enjoying Tolkien’s faculty for world creation, enjoying his poetic use of words. I’m always a fan of masterful storytelling in all media, but we all know this story already. Those of us who haven’t read the novel have probably seen all the movies. I know how this is going to end, so there’s no suspense. This leisurely read-through is more about the journey than the destination.
Which is an apt description of Fellowship as well. No ultimate destination is reached in this volume. It is about a journey with a couple of important stops along the way, and a few important decisions made.
I’m a Kevin Smith fan as well, so I’m familiar with his comic simplification of the plot of LOTR as a lot of walking and finally throwing a ring into a volcano. In Clerks 2, he dramatized this as a rivalry between the competing fandoms of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, a war of the “trilogies” that doesn’t really exist among true nerds who can enjoy both. Me, for instance.
But, let’s face it, narrowing our scope to this first volume only, Fellowship is about a long hike, with some interesting things happening along the way. I like to imagine an Indiana Jones-type map in my head with the journey shown as a moving red arrow across Middle Earth. As a veteran gamer—although a gamer who has never played a LOTR game and doesn’t really get into other high fantasy games—I couldn’t help but see this as an RPG such as Mass Effect (my favorite), with some of the stops along the journey as hub worlds, such as The Shire, Bree, Rivendell, and Lórien. You could argue for The Old Forest and the house of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, if you wanted. They may not have made the cut for the movie, but I enjoyed my stay with Tom, who is the eldest of all the creations in the Tolkien universe (did I get that correct?). Oh, and I definitely should have included the Mines of Moria as a hub world. Big things happen down there. I admit that I referred to the foldout map at the back of my hardcover edition of this volume many times while I read it. I like knowing where the characters are at in their world.
No one reading this review needs or really wants a synopsis of Fellowship. Those are available on-line if you want to read them. I just want to further confuse the whole “trilogy” issue by pointing out that LOTR is not just a novel routinely presented as three individual volumes, but is also further divided into six individual “books.” These books once had their own individual titles, but are usually just printed as “Book 1, “Book 2,” etc. these days. The titles of the two “books” that form Fellowship were once “The First Journey” and “The Journey of the Nine Companions.” The book titles are a wonderful glimpse into the underlying structure of the entire story.
“The First Journey” includes Bilbo Baggins’ eleventy-first birthday party, the passing of the Ring to Frodo, and then Frodo’s journey—with Sam, Merry, and Pippin—from The Shire to Bree, where they meet and are joined by Aragorn, who is a Man with the nickname Strider, and then their journey from Bree to Rivendell. Along the way, the hobbits encounter the Black Riders, who we will find out are Ringwraiths, almost get eaten by a willow tree until they are rescued by Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest, encounter some angry ghosts in the Barrow-Downs, and then—with Aragorn’s help—have a skirmish with the Black Riders on the hill Weathertop in which Frodo is seriously wounded by an enchanted blade. Finally, with Frodo about to succumb to his evil wound, he manages to beat the Black Riders to the last ford before Rivendell on the horse of the Elf-lord Glorfindel. Rivendell is a safe place and a temporary rest stop at the end of the first book.
“The Journey of the Nine Companions” begins in Rivendell, where Frodo is healed of his injuries. Bilbo and Gandalf are already there. The Council of Elrond, the elf master of Rivendell, is convened and the Fellowship of the Ring is formed. At Rivendell, Frodo, and the reader, hear about the true history of the One Ring, including the role played by Gollum/Smeagol, and learn that the only true course of action is to destroy the One Ring in the Cracks of Doom in Mordor, where the ring was forged. Frodo agrees to carry the Ring. The Fellowship is formed of Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas the Elf, Gimli the Dwarf, and Boromir, a Man from the South. The group will travel together, at least for a time.
The fellowship tries and fails to go over the Misty Mountains, then must go under through the Mines of Moria. Here they lose Gandalf, who falls into a chasm beneath the bridge at Khazad-dûm while defending the companions from a Balrog. The surviving eight travel to Lórien, another safe elf territory, where they meet the Lady Galadriel. After this, the fellowship travels by boat down the Great River, Anduin, to the Falls of Rauros. Here, Boromir is almost overcome by his temptation to take the One Ring. Frodo decides to head to Mordor on his own to keep from endangering any of his friends, but he doesn’t slip past Sam, who joins his Master. As the second book ends, and this volume, these two hobbits are splintering off from the group to travel to Mordor alone, and the fellowship is broken.
If you think this was a synopsis of Fellowship, you have to trust me when I say it was a sketchy outline at best. A lot of stuff happens between the covers of this first volume and I only touched on the highlights.
I have enjoyed reading The Lord of the Rings so far even more than I think I did the first time. It has rich, fully developed settings and memorable characters who make for enjoyable traveling companions and hosts. I’m looking forward to beginning The Two Towers tomorrow. I remember how the journey ends, but I don’t remember everything that happens between now and then.