From Times, August 27, 1954.
A review of The Fellowship of the Ring.
J. R. R. Tolkien: The Fellowship of the Ring.
Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings, Allen and
In an earlier book, The Hobbit, Professor
Tolkien portrayed a raw young world, where men crept up empty valleys while
in the waste dragons and dwarfs disputed hoarded treasure. In this world dwelt
the hobbits creatures very like men but with furry feet. They are jolly, rather
Philistine, creatures whose chief pursuit is « growing food and eating
it »; hearty beer-drinkers, heavy smokers, fond of giving parties and
giving after-dinner speeches. (One reader saw in them the influence of Toad
of Toad Hall.)
In The Fellowship of the Ring it is as though
these Light Programme types had intruded into the domain of the Nibelungs.
The result is a system of mythology as coherent, complete and detailed as that
constructed by the ancients from the city-cults of the Levant. The author has
undertakem a task at which Homer, Hesiod and Ovid laboured, and in this long
book, the first volume of a trilogy, their different styles are mirrored by
The Hobbits farm and feast and live for many years;
but they are not immortal, and they marry and have offspring. The hero of this
happy community of elderly schoolboys is Mr. Bilbo Baggins, who once captured
a dragon's hoard; he keeps a magic ring as trophy of this dangerous adventure.
But the Shire, the placid home of the hobbits, is set in an ancient and ruinous
world; the surrounding waste is dotted with the vestiges of vanished kingdoms,
and by half-known roads uncanny wanderers bring rumours of unpleasant doings
in the south. Mr. Baggins learns that the ring is more than a trophy. If the
great magician can get hold of it, he will rule the world by its evil strength;
but its magic is no help to the good, for the wearing of it is harmful to their
souls and bodies. So Mr. Baggins retires to live in a wood with the elves, passing
on the ring to his nephew and heir, Frodo Baggins. Frodo decides to destroy
the ring; though it can only be melted in the fire that forged it, and this
fire glows in the depth of the citadel of the evil. He sets forth with his dangerous
burden, joined by various brave and gifted magicians, dwarfs, elves and men,
and by the end of the volume is about to enter, alone, the very capital of wickedness
and danger. Duty has compelled him to undertake his task, and from a greedy
young hobbledhobbit he has become a noble paladin.
Only considerable skill in narrative can surmount
the difficulty of this complete change of key within the limits of one book.
It is a near thing, but Professor Tolkien just pulls it off. The facetious account
of banquets in the Shire leads on to gently beautiful descriptions of Rivendell
and Lothlórien, the lush greenwood of the elves; later the grim record
of the slaying of Balin, son of Fundin, the prince of the dwarfs who attempted
to reconquer the underground realm of Moria from the sinister Orcs, echoes deliberately
the matter-of-fact despair of the Sagas. The copious invention of background
and the excitement of thrilling adventure carry the reader safely from mood
Yet the plot lacks balance. All right-thinking
hobbits, dwarfs, elves and men can combine against Sauron, Lord of Evil; but
their only code is the warrior's code of courage, and the author never explains
what it is they consider the Good. Lacking the Grail, lacking romantic love,
even the world of Malory would seem empty. Perhaps, after all, this is the point
of a subtle allegory. Against Russia, the western world can draw together, but
if the Iron Curtain vanished the rulers of Yuguslavia and Spain and Britain
would find it hard to agree together on the next step.
Whether this is its meaning, or whether it has
no meaning, The Fellowship of the Ring is a book to read for sound prose
and rare imagination.
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