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Lord of the Rings readalong - the Prologue

It occurred to me that Livejournal has the perfect functionality for making an "opt in" group for discussion - communities. No need to bother those of you what ain't interested in Tolkien (and fie on you!) don't need to be bothered with superfluous posts. So I'll put the first entry - about the Prologue - here, and cross post to the community I created: lotr_bookclub. Please go join the community!

And now, without further ado -

One of the first things that struck me in the prologue is that it's written in Tolkien's own voice. Tolkien describes himself not as the author of the Lord of the Rings, but rather, as its translator. In the Foreward, he is forthcoming about being its author - but in the Prologue, he takes a different tone. So the Foreward is Tolkien-the-author, and the Prologue actually exists within the story of "Lord of the Rings" - and Tolkien is himself a character in that epic, it turns out. He did not write the story. The author, we learn, is the author of the "Red Book of Westmarch" which is called "There and Back Again" by the hobbit who wrote it- Bilbo Baggins. It presages much about the epic that Bilbo's book has many names, and we get quite a history of its various revisions and peregrinations: called "There and Back Again" by Bilbo, and then the "Red Book of Westmarch" when Frodo brought it back from Rivendell in the red case that Bilbo had given it to him in. He condensed Bilbo's many "loose pages of notes" and completed the work - also adding a fifth volume of geneological matters, commentaries, and other "matter(s) concerning the hobbit membres of the Fellowship." We learn that the original copy did not survive, but many copies did - the most important of which being "The Red Book of the Perrianath", copied by Findegal, the scribe of King Ellessar, who made it at the request of Thain Peregrin. Later copies were made by Barahir, grandson of Steward Faramir.

So, by reading carefully, we have already learned that Pippin becomes Thain of the Shire, Aragorn King of Gondor, Faramir the Steward of Gondor - and that Faramir marries and has children, and grandchildren. Pippin retires to Minas Tirith late in his life, so that city also survives. We also learn that Meriadoc and Peregrine become the heads of their Great Families. We also learn, incidentally, that the last elf who survived from the Elder Days to leave Middle Earth is Celeborn, who departs from the Gray Havens on a day that is unrecorded - but that he lived in Rivendell after Galadriel (and perhaps unrelated, Elrond) departs. We've already learned the ultimate fates of quite a few of the players in the story, and the story hasn't yet started. Evidently, Tolkien wasn't worried about spoilers. Or is it that, in portraying himself as historian of Middle Earth, he's proceeding with the assumption that the history is already known, in the same way that we may all know that Napoleon was ultimately brought down at Waterloo, but not know the details?

The prologue is also replete with factual information about Hobbits - where they live, what they are like, what they eat, what they smoke - where they've come from. We get hints that they once had their own language, but the only words in that language we hear are "smials" and "mathom" (tunnels and knick-knacks, respectively.) Tolkien takes pains to pain a picture of the Hobbits as happy creatures given to indolence but capable of industry. Their society is both bumbling and good-natured. The actual origin of Hobbits is as obscured in the prologue as it is in the story. We know where Man, Elves, Dwarves, Ents, Trolls, Orcs and Dragons all came from - but where do Hobbits come from? We're told that they're "closer to Man than Elves" but yet, they're a distinct people. In their past, though (as we find elsewhere) they were more like Men, and larger. Are they a sub-species of human, or are they entirely different? Tolkien is vague on this point - which is odd, given Hobbitly obsession with geneology.

Something which gets stressed quite a bit is the difference between the story that Bilbo tells of how he acquired the Ring in his original tales, vs. the actual truth - which he reluctantly admits to Gandalf "Much straining their friendship." It's mentioned more than once, and both tales spelled out completely - and again in Chapter 1. Is it evidence that the Ring corrupts? Is it editorial back-tracking that Tolkien did to make the events of The Hobbit mesh more completely with LotR, which he conceived long after The Hobbit was complete? It's a curious thing that stands out because its repeated, and its importance isn't clear to me. Rumor has it that Tolkien had no idea where he was headed when he started the books - so much so that Strider was first conceived of (and written as) a Hobbit with two wooden feet named "Trotter". Is this repetition just an artifact of Tolkien finding his way in the story? I prefer to think he had a cunning plan, and its meaning simply eludes me - but then, I am an unrepentant Orthodox Tolkienite, and always more willing to credit J.R.R. than criticise him. Your thoughts are valued here.

I'm looking at the relationship between Bilbo-as-author and Frodo-as-compiler, and seeing a similarity between Tolkien and his son, Christopher. In fact, the chapters concerning Frodo and Sam's trip to Mordor were sent serially to Christopher while he was stationed with the RAF in South Africa. Although Lord of the Rings was ultimatley completed and published (and revised several times) by Tolkien himself, none of his other works were. "The Silmarillion" was edited heavily by Christopher and published after Tolkien's death. I remember it well - it was published in 1977 (hardback) and 1979 for paperback. My Mom bought me a copy one day when I was home sick from school. Yes, I read the Silmarillion before I read Lord of the Rings, and yes, I was eight years old. I was precocious. I read it while simmering through a bad fever, and was completely baffled by the first part, the "Music of the Ainur" - i asked my Mom about it, saying it seemed like the Bible. She said "some people like that, honey. But it's about a different world." I soldiered on, and got to "the good parts". Unfortunately, I also developed a negative association in my head between the Silmarillion and having a boiling high fever - and didn't re-read it for many years. No matter, my love of Tolkien was born.

But, I digress. My point is - in a way, Bilbo and Frodo were much like Tolkien and his son. However, this prologue was written decades before Tolkien died, and he couldn't have known that his son would go on to finish his work and complete the stories of Middle Earth in much the say way Frodo completed the records of the War of the Ring.

One other (thoroughly nerdy) fact that leaps out at me from the Prologue - we all have an image of Hobbits as having particularly large feet. Even the movie has the actors portraying the Hobbits wearing prosthetics, and certainly the early "Hobbit" animated movie showed Biblo as having very big feet. But all Tolkien actually writes here is that they tended to (but did not always) eschew shoes becuase they had hairy feet with thick, leathery soles. He makes no mention of those feet being over-large... just tough. Where did big Hobbit feet come from? Dungeons and Dragons, maybe? If anyone has any information on this, I'd be much obliged for you sharing. As it stands, it seems as though that's one detail that everyone has gotten wrong - especially since the copy I have of "The Hobbit" which contains Tolkien's own drawings, portrays Bilbo as being basically identical to an Englishman, only tiny. His feet are normal-sized, when Tolkien draws him. (If I were more diligent, I would scan the drawing and show you all - but you'll just have to take my word for it.)

I'll wrap it up there. This week, let's all read Chapter 1 "A Long Expected Party" - and continue on, with luck, next Sunday.

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