The Lord of the Rings Reread

LotR re-read: Fellowship I.1, “A Long-expected Party”

And now we begin the story proper in the The Lord of the Rings re-read, with book one, chapter one of Fellowship, “A Long-expected Party.”

I begin each chapter post with a “what happens” section for orientation, and then offer whatever comments occur to me. Thus, after the jump, comments on the opening—particularly its transitional nature—and, inevitably, spoilers for the entire book.

What Happens

Bilbo has announced a party for his 111th birthday and Frodo’s 33rd. Ham Gamgee (“the Gaffer”) and various hobbits (including Sandyman the miller) discuss Baggins family history, including the rumors of Bilbo’s wealth, in the local inn. Dwarves and Gandalf arrive for party setup.

The party is held on September 22nd (in the year 3001, according to Appendix B). After food and fireworks, Bilbo gives a speech in which he announces he is leaving and then vanishes by putting on his magic ring (camouflaged by a flash of light by Gandalf). Back at Bag End, Gandalf and Bilbo have an argument over the ring, and Bilbo (eventually, and with difficulty) leaves it in an envelope for Frodo.

The next day, many hobbits come to Bag End to find that Bilbo has left items for some: most useful, some insulting. Merry Brandybuck helps Frodo deal with treasure-hunters. Otho and Lobelia Sackville-Baggins are nasty and disappointed that Bag End now belongs to Frodo, not them. Gandalf comes back after everyone’s been kicked out: he has begun to wonder about the ring, and urges Frodo not to use it, especially not in a way that would draw attention. He then leaves.


Even before reading Le Guin’s “Rhythmic Pattern” essay, I was really struck by the shifting notes of the opening, as marked with plus [+] and minus [-] signs:

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

Bilbo was very rich [+] and very peculiar [-], and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance [-] and unexpected return [+]. The riches he had brought back from his travels had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed [+], whatever the old folk might say [-], that the Hill at Bag End was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure. And if that was not enough for fame, there was also his prolonged vigour to marvel at. Time wore on [-], but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins [+]. At ninety he was much the same as at fifty. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved; but unchanged would have been nearer the mark [+]. There were some that shook their heads and thought this was too much of a good thing [-]; it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth.

“It will have to be paid for,” they said. “It isn’t natural, and trouble will come of it!” [-]

The last paragraph particularly interests me. Of course it’s factually true that Bilbo’s youth is not natural, but I smell a broadly-applicable theme here on the very first page: “It will have to be paid for.” I think this comes out of the themes of virtuous courage and sacrifice that various critics, such as Shippey and Swanwick, have identified. And it can be seen full-circle in the ending: “I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.” Or, in other words, someone has to pay for them.

* * *

Since I first read this so long ago, I have no idea what I initially thought of the opening’s pace, and anyway back then I pretty much finished whatever I started. On the re-read, I’ve been generally finding the pace slow enough that I was surprised that many people in a collection of essays said they were enthralled from page one. Yet, looking again at this chapter, I think my problems with the pace don’t actually start until chapter three or so. The shifting notes of the opening would be a good hook, and I’m interested in Bilbo, Frodo, and the mystery of the Ring.

It’s true that my hypothetical first-reading self might be more engaged by the characters if this chapter were not so very exterior. The book’s told in omniscient POV, but to the extent that POV narrows or limits itself from time to time, it seems to me that this chapter starts out from the “POV” of the Shire (with a bit of a dip into the Gaffer), then shifts to Bilbo after his speech, and then to Frodo after Bilbo leaves. But there’s still very little description of the characters’ interior thoughts. The first hint that all’s not well, Bilbo and Gandalf’s conversation when Gandalf first arrives, is dialogue-only, except for Gandalf shaking his head. During Bilbo and Gandalf’s argument about leaving the Ring, the omniscient narrator mentions posture and facial expressions, but that’s all. Perhaps Tolkien didn’t want us to spend too much time in Bilbo’s head because he was leaving; perhaps the nearly camera-eye view increases suspense; perhaps it’s hard to do evil-fueled paranoia in an interesting way; perhaps all three. Frodo’s thoughts are saved for the next chapter, when the transition is complete.

That transition is two-fold, as I said when I initially posted about this chapter: from Bilbo and The Hobbit, to Frodo and The Lord of the Rings. By the end, Bilbo has moved off-stage, his ring has come to Frodo, and we are very suspicious of that ring. In that post, I wondered if the transitional nature of the chapter would be off-putting to those who haven’t read The Hobbit and don’t need it, and if the chapter could have been done with more of a focus on Frodo from the start. People offered mixed opinions on this, but not that many of them, so I’m curious to hear other thoughts on the matter.

* * *

The conversation at the inn is the first time on-screen characters talk; it sets up a pattern of conversations at inns in the first three chapters. The Gaffer, a gardener, is the focus. Through him, we are led to dislike Sandyman, and we are given a hint of a generational dispute when the Gaffer recounts his remarks to Sam: “Don’t go getting mixed up in the business of your betters, or you’ll land in trouble too big for you.” This works in three different directions: it signals the Gaffer’s perceptions about class; it relates to the passing of the generational torch above; and it demonstrates the complacency and parochialism that’s being set up throughout the chapter.

That conversation, for instance, is extremely small-town; Buckland is “away there,” being on a river is “unnatural,” and so forth. The party scene is also very comfortable and rich and happy, until Gandalf intentionally “startle(s) the hobbits exceedingly” with the dragon fireworks display. (I don’t believe there was any known danger at the time, so I can’t say that Gandalf was trying to remind the hobbits of the outside world, but it is very suggestive. And then in a reversal, Bilbo uses it as the signal for dinner.)

Gandalf’s fireworks, we’re told earlier, belonged to a “legendary past”; I think the whole sequence is a nice foreshadowing of the return of legends, good and bad.

* * *

The party, Bilbo’s departure, and the Ring:

The depiction of Bilbo’s speech is also a good example of rhythmic patterns and reversals.

Another thing I had not consciously noted before, Bilbo’s statement of why he held the party at all:

“After all that’s what this party business was all about, really: to give away lots of birthday presents, and somehow make it easier to give it away at the same time. It hasn’t made it any easier in the end, but it would be a pity to waste all my preparations. It would quite spoil the joke.”

More evidence of his strength of character and resilience over the long term, not just when confronted by Gandalf. Also the use of humor as the basis for courage, as pointed out by Tom Shippey in Road to Middle-earth (pages 156-158, revised trade paperback edition). As he puts it, Ragnarök’s “great statement was that defeat is no refutation. The right side remains right even if it has no ultimate hope at all.” However, this Northern courage even in the face of inevitable defeat had a tendency toward heathen ferocity, so Tolkien modified it by centering it on laughter.

(Another critic, Matthew A. Fisher,* sees courage in LotR as the intersection of this and Christianity, specifically Augustine’s views on human nature and grace. After the Fall, humans are born sinners and will naturally tend toward sin. Divine grace, a gift from God, is thus necessary to save people—though there is a tension there because Christians still have to act meritoriously. In other words, even though humans are going to fail, they still have to try. (And may receive unearned grace at the end, like Frodo.))

When the Ring passes, Frodo is strongly tempted to use it when Lobelia corners him. Bilbo has in the past used the Ring to avoid the Sackville-Bagginses, we’re told later. I want to find this significant, but I think it’s nothing more than human (hobbit) nature.

The chapter ends on an ominous, open-ended note:

Frodo saw him to the door. He gave a final wave of his hand, and walked off at a surprising pace; but Frodo thought the old wizard looked unusually bent, almost as if he was carrying a great weight. The evening was closing in, and his cloaked figure quickly vanished into the twilight. Frodo did not see him again for a long time.

* * *

A few random notes:

  • Sam’s stated to be the youngest child of the Gaffer. Somehow I never saw Sam as having siblings before.
  • Loyalty and generosity are the acknowledged and valued virtues of Bilbo, as praised by the Gaffer and shown through his gifts to the poorer hobbits.
  • I’d also forgotten the quiet humor of the narrator, such as the remark that Bilbo “gave away presents to all and sundry — the latter were those who went out again by a back way and came in again by the gate.”

* “Working at the Crossroads: Tolkien, St. Augustine, and the Beowulf-poet,” in The Lord of the Rings, 1954-2004: Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Blackwelder, ed. Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull, Marquette University Press, 2006.

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