I’m reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time since I was a child and I’m writing blog posts about the book when I feel like it.
Last night I finished the first book of The Lord of the Rings (meaning the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring), and I think this is a good moment for me to write down a couple thoughts that I’ve had about the book-as-a-book so far.
Tolkien has strange instincts when it comes to writing dialogue for characters. His prose outside of speaking is generally good, and almost always interesting. Tolkien understood how myths functioned to make the world around a culture seem both vitally alive and historically dense, and so the moments when no one is speaking (or when we’re not being primed to listen to someone speaking) are the best.
What’s the problem with his dialogue? Tolkien is always writing to deliver information. He was clearly preoccupied with fleshing out his universe (or worldbuilding, as we’ve come to call it). The way he goes about this is to make every single conversation deliver some kind of information about the plot as well as the world at large. That’s successful if you’re concerned with building a world, but it isn’t successful if you want to avoid being incredibly boring. I’m reading the book each night before bed, and I’ve quite literally nodded off during longer sections of conversation about the history of a place, or Weathertop, or these fields, or the men of the Westernesse, or some song about history, or whatever.
A part of me wonders if Tolkien had been rendered immune to recognizing these problems through his work in the British academy. Gandalf holding court about the world feels a lot like someone talking about their research.
Another part of this, as I’ve spoken about on Twitter, is that The Lord of the Rings is a 19th century novel. There’s clearly a mythological bent–he’s creating a world that still contains wonder in a reaction to modernity–but it doesn’t ever hit a medieval-or-before tone. It thoroughly lands in the realm of Dickens–the huge cast of interrelated characters, their willingness to express their inner feelings in leaden monologues, and the inherent traits of the different peoples and locations. If Frodo rolled up on Old Hell Shaft, I wouldn’t be surprised.
I’d never realized how pieced together Tolkien’s world is. After I read the section on Tom Bombadil, I went and did some research and realized that he existed far before Middle Earth did. His insertion into the plot as this hyperpowerful tree wrangler–a wyrd being inside of a plasticine doll body, for all intents and purposes–is such a strange move and doesn’t do much other than stall out Frodo and party for 80 pages (well, I guess that section makes sure that they are armed with knives).
An aside: I completely understand why the movie cut that section out completely.
I love the idea that Tolkien had thought so much about Tom Bombadil that he just had to insert him into The Lord of the Rings. My understanding of the worldbuilding of Tolkien from LotR fans and fandom itself over the years has been the Tolkien was a bit of a watchmaker–everything in the system he created can either be directly reckoned through charts, appendixes, and maps or it can be inferred from the substantial information that we do have about this world.
But right there, smack at the start of the story, Tolkien has a real “oh fuck it, I like this guy, he’s going in” bricolage moment. It’s wonderful.