Thursday 2 March 2017

The Fellowship of the Ring - The Prologue

I confess that I am one of those readers who often skips, skims or ignores prologues and introductions in my excitement to get to the story proper. I'm also concerned that the author might inadvertently reveal an important feature of the story to come.

But this time, with my aim to reread the HLOTR leisurely and thoughtfully, I took my time with the Prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring and I noticed several interesting things.

***Spoilers will abound from here on in - so only proceed if you are also rereading LOTR or come back when you have finished***

First I have come to realise that when the author themselves have included the prologue, they have done so deliberately and for a reason. (This is where a prologue differs from an introduction written by another. Introductions written by someone other than the author, I do usually save for the end of the story as they always seem to include spoilers.)

The main thing that struck me this time, was that Tolkien clearly tells us in his Prologue that Frodo, Samwise, Merry and Pippin all survive the war that he is about to tell us about.

He reveals that Merry (Meriadoc Brandybuck) writes a book called the Herblore of the Shire and later becomes the Master of Buckland. Frodo brings Bilbo's journals back to The Shire and adds his own account of the war. Tolkien refers to the descendants of the children of Master Samwise and the great grandson of Peregrin.

The first time I read LOTR I skimmed the Prologue. I found it dry and irrelevant. I had just finished The Hobbit and felt that I knew enough about hobbits and what I didn't know I would learn as I went along.

The second time I read LOTR I did tackle the Prologue but I still didn't pick up that our four main hobbits were clearly referenced with post war happenings.

With this reread, I not only tackled the Prologue, I thoroughly enjoyed every word of it. Yes, it reads like a dry history text, but it's meant to.

I was impressed with the depth and breadth of Tolkien's knowledge about his created world. He has created distinct languages, legends, customs, history and geography for his three breeds of hobbit. The inhabitants of this world have racial characteristics as well as individual regional differences and personal temperaments. They live in a variety of socio-economic states and enjoy diverse lifestyle choices. He explains their forms of government as well as local rules and laws.

Although the prologue is all about hobbits, Tolkien divulges how The Shire fits within the bigger world picture. He references the Red Book of Westmarch, of which The Hobbit, or as Bilbo preferred to call it, There And Back Again, was just a small part in the earlier chapters. He mentions several other ancient texts as well as future ones to be written by our main characters - you would have to agree that the prologue shows Tolkien as a master of intertextuality!

We find out that we are in the Third Age of Middle Earth (what about the other two?) and we are given several hints of the troubles to come.

Bilbo's 'alternate facts' around the finding of the ring are given a whole section in the prologue. Much of Gandalf's curiosity about the origins of the ring and it's power stem from this uncharacteristic fudging of the truth by Bilbo (a fudging that we were not aware of during our reading of The Hobbit). We are then reminded of this disturbing train of events early in chapter one. Tolkien really wants us to know that the ring somehow influenced Bilbo to act deceptively and out of character.
And perhaps, it's also Tolkien's way of having fun with the fact that he did indeed change large sections of the finding of the ring scenes from the first edition of The Hobbit, to later versions that he wrote to bring it into line with events in the LOTR.

And, in case you were wondering, like I was, why there was a whole section on pipe smoking, it's to surely show us that Merry lives to write his smoking book, which our omniscient narrator then quotes from at length!

Assuming, as I have that an author includes a prologue for a reason, why does Tolkien want us to know that Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin all survive the war?

Part of the pleasure of my first read, nearly 30 years ago, was the suspense and tension of not knowing if all my favourite hobbits would live. The modern reader is used to authors killing off main characters for dramatic purposes; I was therefore expecting to lose at least one of the four hobbits for good.

I wonder if it has anything to do with Tolkien's own war time experiences?

In his foreword, Tolkien sadly explains that by 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead. Perhaps he doesn't want his readers (who were initially his own children) to live through the same tragic circumstances. The fear of not knowing which hobbits will survive the coming ordeal is spared us, the alert reader.

How did you find the Prologue?



  1. Perhaps I am just more anxious than many readers, but I always like it when the author gives the reader a heads-up that our heros will be around in the future beyond the current story. I'm looking forward to diving into Fellowship!

    1. I admit, that in this case, it is a comfort to know ahead of time. Perhaps it allows us to learn the lessons of the journey more clearly without our emotions being clouded by fear of loss?

  2. You know I never thought about that before, but you're right- he DOES tell us that the four hobbits survive! And about the prologue- it does read a tad dry but afterward I felt like I really knew the Shire. And I for one love to think about Pippin traveling to Gondor and stuff like that. All the post- War stuff is fascinating to me- the afterstory, I guess.

    I love that cover of Fellowship of the Ring, with the shaft of light in Moria. Nice! Oh and if you've never been to Ted Nasmith's website, it has a ton of Tolkien artwork.

    1. I certainly agree that the prologue is an essential part of the story. I also think it's hidden gems come out more during a reread, when you know what happens & already have an affinity for 4 of our favourite hobbits.


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