It has been years since I’ve read The Lord of the Rings trilogy and so I’ve decided, even though I think I’m a little crazy, to re-read the series. I’ve just finished The Fellowship of the Ring last night, and so hear are some of my thoughts about the first book.
I’m no literary scholar by any stretch of the imagination. But I do know that there are only so many ways to tell a story. It is sort of like skinning a cat. There are many ways to do it but there are a few that are the most common. The Lord of the Rings is a “hero’s journey” story arc. It is the story of Frodo and the Ring. It doesn’t hide this, in fact, it states it plainly.
However, I won’t judge the story arc of The Fellowship of the Ring due to it being only the first three parts of a six-part series. In fact, it was never intended to be a book all its own at all. The rather anticlimactic ending shows this to be all too true. Instead I’ll focus on the way that The Fellowship of the Ring slowly unravels itself.
What I mean by that is that, I think, J. R. R. Tolkien does an incredible job at slowly, but not too slowly, revealing the backgrounds of the various characters that appear in the story line. The story progresses while at the same time it goes back and forth through time, mostly through the characters telling stories, so that the reader gets all of the information they need.
There are a number of ways to do this in story telling. Usually this is done by keeping the protagonist, or one of the main character’s in the story, ignorant of all the facts. This gives the other characters in the story many opportunities to fill in the details through dialogue. Many stories have a cast each with their own areas of expertise. An action hero paired with a scientist or scholar so that the “brain” can inform the “muscle” of the facts for the benefit of the audience. Or, this can be done with a narrator. The narrator, whether it be a character in the story or just someone telling the story, usually has all of the information because they are telling a story of times past. The Lord of the Rings has both of these really. Two of the main characters are, in fact, the narrators (and writer’s) of the books while their own characters, in this case the protagonist, is learning all of the details along the way. This leaves ample opportunity for explanation. Frodo is learning the story and telling the story at the same time.
I rather enjoy the way the back stories unfold in The Fellowship of the Ring. The deep history of the lands, characters, peoples, trees, and even mountains in The Lord of the Rings really shows the context of the current story. It shows that this particular story is only a small part, albeit an important part, of the history of the world in which this story is set. Small details are intertwined in dialogue, descriptions, and events that – unless the reader is paying attention – they may altogether miss. A few examples of this come to mind; Aragorn’s approximate age, the lineage of Arwen, and the history of Sauron. These stories are never told flatly but are rather pieced together through bits of information you get along the way. The only history not told in this way is the history of the hobbits which is told in the prologue. The history of Men, Elves, Dwarves, and many of the main characters are all unraveled from within the story itself.
By itself The Fellowship of the Ring is a great opening to a fantastic story. I was going to watch the movie version of this book in between finishing it and starting the next. But I fear that will ruin my mind’s impression of the book’s version of the story (since the movie version is a lot different). I’m looking forward to The Two Towers.