Books Read in 2021 – 28. The Fellowship of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien

Genre: Adventure, Fantasy

Narrative Style: Third person, chronological.

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1954

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: When Bilbo Baggins decides he is going to leave the Shire, he leaves his heir, Frodo with an immense task. One of the items passed on to Frodo is a ring with immense power. This means that Frodo has to leave his home and take on the hugely important task of destroying the ring.

Time on shelf: These books belong to my husband and have been on our shelves for the entirety of our time living together so 25 years. As he was allowed to help me put together this years reading list, this was at the top of it.

I read The Hobbit a long time ago and really enjoyed it but when I tried to read The Fellowship of the Ring, I just couldn’t get into it. I tried a couple of more times over the years but to no avail so I was expecting this to be a bit of a slog. And in fact, the prologue explaining all the history was hard going. (I remembered that one of the previous times I hadn’t even made it through this part.) However, once the story got started, I started to enjoy it more.

Of course, I have seen the films more than once so I had some idea of the story – as most people do – but I didn’t remember it well and the book is quite different anyway so I wasn’t bored by the unfurling of the story. (The only slight issue being that the casting for some of the roles in the movie was so good that they filled my mind when those characters came up – Frodo and Bilbo mainly but also Saruman and Gandalf as well.) The plot is straightforward. Frodo is the keeper of the ring and he gradually amasses the rest of the group who will make up the Fellowship and they start to make their way towards Mordor. This is not an issue as there are enough ups and downs to keep the reader’s interest. Tolkien’s style is easy to read without being simplistic.

The heart of the novel is the friendship between the Hobbits and particularly that between Sam and Frodo. Sam is absolutely devoted to Frodo and is devastated when he thinks that Frodo may have left to carry on his journey alone. When Frodo is hurt, Sam stays by his side. He sneaks into the Council of Elrond in order to be close to him. There is a definite homo-erotic element to this, making their friendship tender and intimate. It makes up for the general lack of sexuality and romance elsewhere in the novel.

However, there were a couple of things that stopped this from getting five stars. First of all, the insistence of having the story unfurl around Frodo meant that there was a good amount of talk so that the reader could learn what had happened to the others. This slowed the action. (This is remedied in the films by having the action move between Gandalf and Frodo, for example.) There is also a lot of history that Tolkien has to somehow get into the story and again, this slowed things down.

The characters in the novel don’t particularly develop. The Hobbits are Hobbits with their appetites and their singing, the Elves are Elves and so on. They don’t change unless they come into contact with the ring. The focus is on the adventure rather than the characters taking part in it. This is part of the reason that I don’t read a lot of straightforward fantasy or adventure. I much prefer a story of character development. It is also quite a boyish book with few significant women but given that it was written in the fifties, perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on Tolkien if he could only imagine a world where men were free to go off on quests and did the majority of fighting.

Ultimately, this is a story of good and evil and the unlikely heroes these times make. It is easy to sympathise with Frodo as he is clearly not made for this sort of behaviour. The story trots along nicely although I didn’t feel compelled to immediately pick up the next instalment. I will read it though and that is something I did not expect to say.

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