It's been a long time since I read the Lord of the Rings proper fresh off the heels of The Hobbit. It may even be a decade! And I skipped my usually-annual re-read last year because of my foolhardy way of participating in the 100 Books Challenge (I decided I'd shoot for 100 new books [as in no re-reads] by 100 different authors]), and there's a lot in these books that seems fresher, or at least strikes me differently, this time around.
But really, I'm going to really try to be less verbose now. Really. But let me take a second to thank everybody who is reading along and commenting. Commenting! I am unaccustomed to getting to have actual discussions with people on this blog. It's very cool.
Now, onward to The Fellowship of the Ring!
Bilbo's little "that'll show 'em" in the form of the Biggest Party in the History of Ever is a horribly consequential thing in light of what we learn later about the history of his trinket and how the trinket's original owner is turning the world upside-down to recover it. Yes, yes, the Bagginses are already screwed thanks to Gollum, but how much harder did Bilbo make things for Frodo by making sure that his departure from the Shire was the most talked-about thing in its entire history? For it seems that things around Bag End had more or less settled down. Bilbo was always a celebrated eccentric, of course, but his neighbors had gotten used to him and, until this party, he had largely escaped the big-time, razory attention of the gossips except in his choice of his cousin Frodo as his heir, which most seem to have enjoyed as a poke in the eye to the Sackville-Bagginses.* But then, BOOM, hey everybody, pay attention to me so I can snub you properly and make a scene!
They'll be talking about that shit for years!
Of course, we all really just wish we could have been at the party, don't we? Gandalf's fireworks "like a flight of scintillating birds singing with sweet voices... green trees with trunks of dark smoke; their leaves opened like a whole spring unfolding in a moment, and their shining branches dropped glowing flowers down upon the astonished hobbits, disappearing with a sweet scent just before they touched their upturned faces..." Sigh. It was really something to read about these on a Fourth of July bereft of traditional explosions due to the off-the-charts risk of Gandalfian forest fires. But I digress.
Except dude, the musical crackers from Dale! I definitely would have been the most annoying hobbit child there.
But anyway, Bilbo's disappearing act steals the show and makes sure all attention will be on him and his cousin for a long time to come, which, this time around, just really seems like a self-centered and obnoxious thing to do. But, as we shortly learn, the Ring is finally starting to really get to poor old Bilbo, who feels "thin and stretched" in the famous phrase. He's on his way toward following in Smeagol's sneaky tricksy footsteps and becoming Gollum, Junior, but instead, with (a lot of) Gandalf's help, is the first Keeper of the Ring to ever voluntarily give it up. That, too, shall be Frodo's problem. And off Bilbo goes into the night, to get the hell out of Dodge and away from all of his busybody neighbors....
Of course the next morning Frodo is drowning in said neighbors, who don't like his simple, truthful explanation that Bilbo has gone away for a while and please, some of you at least, accept these nice parting gifts...
I love the parting gifts, by the way. I was especially amused by the empty bookcase "For the collection of Hugo Bracegirdle from a Contributor." Hugo, we are told, borrows lots of books and forgets to return them. This sent me off on a good 45 minute mental tanget this time around, wondering about the Shire's literary life. I'm sure it's all the produce of artisanal small presses, the books hand-stitched and leather-bound, but what would be in them? Treatises on gardening and brewing? Animal husbandry? Sure. Maybe lots of jolly collections of riddles and puns and drinking songs. But do hobbits read fiction? And if so, what kind?
Interspecies romance has to be super popular in the Shire! HAS. TO.
But as I said, that's a tangent, but then so is a lot of these first few chapters. Bilbo makes his splashy getaway, Frodo is left holding the Bag End and the Ring, and Gandalf is left to tell Frodo what he has learned and that he is suspicious! But that's all for now, Frodo, don't use the Ring, keep it secret, keep it safe, see you when I see you.
And then years go by. Years! This novel starts on Frodo's 33rd birthday (which is the same day as Bilbo's 111th, and I know lots of people who use September 22nd as an excuse to drink geekily for these reasons, how about you?), and then there is a lacuna during which he mostly just enjoys owning Bag End and taking long wanders through the Shire** with Merry and Pippin, until Gandalf returns all freaked out because, as he proves by throwing the Ring into the fire and revealing its inscriptions in the Black Speech of Mordor, it's the Lord of the Rings! And Sauron has a pretty good idea where it is! And he's even heard, thanks to Gollum, the name of Baggins! Frodo had better get ready to skeedaddle.
And of course Sam gets caught Dropping Eaves and is shang-haied into becoming Frodo's traveling companion, as we all know very well.
By now, Frodo is 50, the same age that Bilbo was when he left for his adventure. Seventeen years have gone by since The Party, but no one seems to have forgotten about it. Frodo is still the object of uncontained fascination and gossip and speculation, so while the pressure is on for him to leave (He began to say to himself "Perhaps I shall cross the River myself one day." To which the other half of his mind always replied, "Not yet."), getting out of the Shire quietly is rendered all but impossible, again, as much thanks to Bilbo's stunt as anything.
Why yes, yes, I am 50. Grecian formula, bitches!
So everybody has to get devious: putting it about that Frodo can't afford to keep Bag End, he sells it to the Sackville-Bagginses and goes so far as to buy a house in Crickhollow (the eastern edge of the Shire, all but bordering on the Old Forest, oh noes!) to convince everybody that he's just sort of quietly retiring into obscurity among his mother's relatives (Brandybucks like Merry) like, some Hobbiton gossips say, he should have done in the first place. And even here he dawdles, enjoying his last summer in The Shire, chiefly so that no one associates his departure from Bag End with Gandalf's most recent visit, I guess?
But finally, convincing himself that his departure is more to do with his missing Bilbo than with heading into uncertainty and danger as a fugitive from all the evil in the world, he gives up Bilbo's marvelous hobbit hole with the beautiful green door and sets off -- again, at a very leisurely pace, on foot with Sam and Pippin (Merry and their friend Fatty Bolger having gone on ahead in a cart with the furniture), to the other end of the Shire.
Man, that's a lot of work just to get out from under the pressure of Bilbo's prank, no?
Of course, Frodo and the boys come to regret all the dilly-dallying; the creatures we re-readers know are the Nazgul but the boys at this stage just know as sniffly riders in black are all over the Shire and pumping all the local gossips about their favorite subjects, the Bagginses. Oops!
There is a lovely interlude with some Elves that are on their way to the Grey Havens and who are pretty impressed with Frodo, who was attentive at his Elvish lessons, and then a charming visit with Farmer Maggot (yes, charming, you people who have only seen the films. Not only was Pippin already traveling with Sam and Frodo on the "Shortcut to Mushrooms" but once Maggot realized who they were, he invited them to supper and sent them off with a nice big basket of his prize crop, and gave them a ride on the back of his wagon to Bucklebury Ferry to boot. And none of that faux-jeopardy dashing and almost missing the ferry nonsense, either; a Nazgul does show as they pole away, but just off in the distance, creepy and ominous, and not riding hell-bent-for-leather in an unnecessary chase scene. Sigh.), and then an even more important scene that the movie just skipped over in favor of establishing Merry and Pippin as bog standard prankster/ne'er-do-wells, in which the duo reveal themselves as shrewd observers of human (ok, hobbit) behavior, intelligent young men and exceedingly good friends; they've been onto Frodo's real plans for quite a while now but kept quiet about it until they could spring their joining him as pretty much a fait accompli, which Frodo, having had two narrow escapes with Nazgul by then, is glad to accept. I love this scene very much.
I also love the Old Forest, more or less the Shire's answer to Mirkwood, except with more, uh, active trees. I don't know why, but I'm always surprised by the trees in the Old Forest. Not Old Man Willow, of course -- that is one unforgettable tree -- but by the sinister all-but-movement and general malevolence of all of the other trees. They remember a big bonfire the hobbits of Buckland had had many years before, and know that things on two legs have a nasty tendency to have axes, and resent them for it in no uncertain terms. Now, how this translates to an ability to lull them to sleep, I don't quite know; it would take a lot to put me off my guard and make me crave a nap in a forest as creepy as this one*** but hey, that's magic, for you.
See, this looks awfully damp, and also like a case of
poison ivy waiting to happen. By all means, let's snooze!
Cue Fellowship of the Ring's answer to Beorn,**** Tom Bombadil, in the nick of time to rescue Merry and Pippin from the woody clutches of
Tolkien established himself very well as a songwriter in The Hobbit. Indeed, we all discovered that his songs are quite enjoyably singable when doing certain household chores. And there is, in the songs we've encountered so far, an evocative power and simple elegance to them that bears out the common notion that the Lord of the Rings books are The Hobbit all grown up -- except for Bombadil's songs, which are metrically all over the map, never stick to the rhyme schemes they start with and are full of nonsense words that would probably be cute on their own, but since nonsense words in songs and poetry are chiefly put in to fit an established meter and rhyme scheme, they serve here merely to highlight the lack of those here.
In fairness, I don't think I could balance on one foot like that without
spilling the lillies. Huh huh. That sounds a bit rude, doesn't it?
I fully accept that my years of writing sonnets and other formal poetry at the drop of a hat have probably made me so sensitive to this matter than I'm probably the only person on earth who finds Bombadil's songs irritating, but there you go. That's why I didn't miss him in the film.
Because knowing PJ and co as I have come to, I can just tell that they would have been word perfect on those stupid songs, which would highlight their unsingability while at the same time encouraging legions of dorks to sing them all the freaking time at geek gatherings and assure that I'd pretty much never take off the ranty hat again.
And that's more than enough for now, I think. Especially knowing that in Chapter 7 there will be more Bombadil, now with a hot chick backup singer. Oh. Snape.
Many thanks to the Amazing Amy, who blogs daily with much hilarity over at Lucy's Football, for sharing with us that awesome 1980s-era Two Towers book cover.
*Decades after I took these books to my bosom, I encountered the person of Vita Sackville-West in biographies of Virginia Woolf, and had a powerful prejudice against her just for the association of these names. Later on, Vita became a favorite person to read and think about for me, but still, whenever I see that name, I think of Loathsome Lobelia first and Vonderful Vita, with her gardens and her poetry and her married life and her affairs, second. Anyone else have an experience like that? I wonder if Tolkien knew any of the Sackvilles/Sackville-Wests of Knole. I wonder, if he did, what they did to earn his distaste. I wonder.
**Really, these first four chapters are pretty much a prolonged vale to the Shire, whose geography and landscapes are lovingly described. This serves, of course, as a bookend to the Scouring of the Shire many, many, many pages from now; we could not appreciate the ruin, the damage, had we not seen how wonderful the place was originally.
***I can totally see getting sleepy in a pleasant, peaceful forest, but not in one that seems actively to be trying to scratch, trip and in general hurt me.
****They even have the same diet: yellow cream, butter and honey, though because Tom has a girlie he gets white bread, too, whitebread.