Book: The Fellowship of the Ring
This week, we start our journey at the green door of Bag-End, with an aged Mr. Bilbo Baggins celebrating his eleventy-first birthday in the Shire.
And then we stay in the Shire. And, actually, by the end of this read, Gandalf and Bilbo are the only ones who have made it out of the Shire. Frodo isn’t even to his new house by the end of chapter four! If nothing else, it really gives you a sense of the scale of Middle Earth.
But I disgress. We begin with Bilbo, celebrating his eleventy-first and generally baffling all of the other hobbits with his strange habits and mysterious wealth, then disappearing without a trace. But, in the end, who among the hobbits really minds? Because party with free food! I can get behind the hobbit way of life.
Of course, Frodo cares. So our perspective shifts to Frodo and his new responsibilities as the owner of the Ring and his decision to leave the Shire and take on the burden of the Ring. Our hero, in true epic form, begins his journey.
In reading these chapters, there were a few things that stood out to me, for various reasons. I’ll review them in order:
- Bilbo’s bequeathments
Okay, Bilbo’s bequeathments are seriously hilarious. They had me laughing aloud as I was reading. It’s basically the sneakiest way of saying “Here are your shortcomings as a person (hobbit?)”, but no one can actually be mad because he’s technically giving them a gift. Brilliant.
My favorite of these?
“For DORA BAGGINS in memory of a LONG correspondence, with love from Bilbo; on a large waste-paper basket…”
A WASTE-PAPER BASKET. Ouch.
Note to self: if I ever attempt to disappear from a place and have a bunch of people I dislike, ironic bequeathments are the way to go.
- The age gap between Frodo and the rest of the hobbits
Frodo’s relative age is a fact of which I wasn’t aware, having only seen the films, in which Elijah Wood is by far the youngest of the actors who play them. In actuality, Frodo is 50, and older than Sam, Merry, and Pippin.
For me, this puts a new perspective on the other hobbits’ decision to join Frodo in his quest. Frodo is initially reluctant to tell them about what he’s doing for the very reason that they’re young, and he doesn’t want to burden them. He’s content to let them live their lives and go on his own journey, having some idea (though not nearly the full extent) of the danger it entails.
But, as we likely all know at this point, they decide to accompany him anyway. It’s a touching moment of friendship. And yet also, I think, a stark reminder that — though the younger hobbits are not children precisely — the attempts of adults to shelter children from the world’s harshness is often ineffective. I’ll be interested to see, as I read, how this impacts Frodo’s feelings about the journey — and whether guilt results because of it.
- Long waiting time to start the journey
As I mentioned above, it’s actually a really, really long time before Frodo leaves the Shire. Really. He turns 33 on Bilbo’s 111th birthday… and then it’s seventeen years until he actually has to take action. Even once he’s made the decision to sell Bag-End, sold it, and begun moving toward his new house, he only makes it part of the way by the end of this week’s section.
I feel this does two things for the narrative. When any journey is drawn out, it decreases the urgency. In the film, this seventeen year gap is condensed for the sake of urgency — it moves the plot along. But here, the fate of Middle-Earth is put on hold for a while. The world may be deteriorating, but within the confines of the Shire, it’s hard to tell. In a way, it’s another reminder of the Shire’s idyllic separation from the outside world — at least, for now.
The second thing that waiting accomplishes is increasing the suspense. What has been happening all this time that Frodo’s just been sitting on the Ring? We’ll find out, but certainly not quickly.
- The Elves
Chapter III introduces the Elves for the first time, who have been mentioned up to this point, but not given voice. Frodo, Sam, and Pippin encounter a group of Elves on their way to Frodo’s new home. Gildor & co. are what you would expect of the Elves: stately, ethereal, but happy enough to welcome Frodo and his friends when they discover that he’s an Elf-Friend.
To me, the quality that’s particularly interesting about the elves is two-fold. Tolkien brought to life what we now consider the stereotypical fantasy elf: tall, graceful, otherworldly. But even as he presents them as untouchable, learned beings, Tolkien exposes their foibles.
The Elves are ultimately wise. They give Frodo thoughtful advice when he asks, but it is detached from the gravity of the situation. When Frodo asks whether to leave the Shire or to wait for Gandalf, Gildor essentially turns the question back on him: “The choice is yours: to go or to wait.”
Frodo laughs at this and quotes a proverb: “Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.” The Elves’ advice is well-considered, but it doesn’t solve problems. It only spurs the true heroes of our story to make their decisions.
I’ve always found Tolkien’s Elves fascinating for that reason — they are wise and learned, but it doesn’t necessarily make them good or heroic. This first encounter with the Elves highlights that fact and brings up one of the book’s many questions: What good is wisdom and knowledge if nothing is done with it?
Next week, we’ll be continuing with chapters 5-11. Have comments, questions, or points of contention about my take on the first four chapters? Leave your thoughts below!