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‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us’.
One hundred books! Oh my eyes are tired. To celebrate I chose to re-read for the umpteenth time the first book in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I read The Hobbit and then its larger sequel while I was still in school towards the end of the 1980’s. In many ways the experience defined my taste in reading ever since, so I felt the choice for today was appropriate. What’s more returning to this book I find much that is familiar; but also many elements of Tolkien’s writing that I did not notice before.
As this is a sequel to the popular novel The Hobbit, Tolkien begins by returning to the Shire, where a race known as hobbits once lived centuries ago during a time known as Middle-Earth. Bilbo Baggins the hero of that book is celebrating his 111th birthday and has chosen to travel once more on the open road, leaving his home and possessions to young Frodo Baggins. His old friend, the wizard Gandalf the Grey, arrives in the Shire to see him off. Before Bilbo leaves the wizard asks that he bequeath his magic ring to his heir, won during his adventures in a contest of riddles with the creature Gollum. At first the old hobbit refuses, shaking with anger, but he eventually relents. He leaves the Shire, suddenly feeling as if he has been unburdened.
Years pass before Gandalf returns to Frodo’s home in Bag End, revealing that the magic ring hidden for all this time is in fact The Great Ring, forged by the Dark Lord Sauron to command all the races of Middle-Earth. Frodo decides to flee the home he loves so well, knowing that as long as he stays all his friends are in danger. Gandalf encourages him to leave in secret, for there are spies from the east, the land of Mordor, abroad looking for news of the Ring.
Accompanied by his trusty man-servant Sam, and friends Merry and Pippin, Frodo leaves the Shire just in time. The party of hobbits have several close escapes from mysterious Black Riders hunting them, even at one point seeing one sniffing the ground like an animal. They are also faced with other dangers during their journey, such as the powerful Old Man Willow and the dread Barrow-Wights. Eventually they meet a ranger who is known as Strider, who offers to help them travel to the safe haven of Rivendell. Only after a terrifying chase do they make it to the house of Elrond Half-Elven. There a final council is held to decide what to do with the Great Ring and Frodo realizes he has little choice but to bear it into the kingdom of Mordor itself. Only there at the volcano where it was first forged can it be destroyed.
In my opinion The Fellowship of the Ring is the best of the three published books that make up Tolkien’s epic story The Lord of the Rings. For one it bridges the charming tone of The Hobbit with the increasingly more grandiose quality of its sequel. The Shire is shown to be sheltered from the greater dangers of Middle-Earth and Tolkien’s love of the bucolic lifestyle of hobbits is unfeigned. Years after reading this book I discovered a painting by Pieter Bruegel The Land of Cockaigne, which perfectly captures this contrast.
This almost childlike innocence of Frodo and his friends is threatened by the malign evil of the Black Riders. They appear in each of the three books, yet I never found them as frightening as when they were chasing hobbits down country lanes. Evil is a great concern of Tolkien’s, here identified as the corruptive influence of power. Sauron exists to pervert life and cheat death. The Christian subtext in the novels favours the worthiness of innocent hobbits over mighty warriors.
It is also a book about the passing of things, representing Tolkien’s idyllic vision of his childhood. Repeatedly he describes how magic is leaving the world of Middle-Earth, leaving the world of men behind.
Like a warm blanket, I enjoyed sinking into it for a day.