It seems like an appropriate time to update my journey through The Lord of the Rings, given that yesterday the Fellowship broke and, uh, sort of in three days Frodo will meet Gollum. This is the one month that’s weird since every month in Shire reckoning has 30 days. And,well, February doesn’t.
This is a great time for me to reflect on the differences between the first two books – that is, that’s what I’m going to start talking about. Fellowship is obviously about, well, fellowship. A group of people are slowly drawn together, in part through the loss of a comrade. It is, in a real sense, the story of war veterans. Tolkien served in the First World War, and he would know about foxhole camaraderie, I’d imagine – it’s argued that the Dead Marshes are direct references to his experience in trenches, being forced to crawl over the water-covered bodies of his dead comrades in arms. Yes, most of the actual warfare happens in the last two books, but Fellowship is the book in which everyone gets to know everyone else, and we see the crew draw together, only to break apart in a way that, in hindsight, seems entirely fated.
I was thinking recently about some of the shit these books get, even from fans. The most popular question, of course, is “why didn’t they ride eagles into Mordor?” Of course, this has an equally obvious, in-canon answer of “Sauron would see that shit and burn them alive.” But the books have a lot to say about the nature of fate, or possibly Fate. Gandalf says, more than once, that some other hand is at work in the events leading up to what he hopes will be the destruction of the Ring of Power. He means, of course, the Valar across the water, one of whom he was for the first part of his life (sort of – he’s like a demigod or assistant or something. Look, just read Unfinished Tales I guess). Anyway. What I’m thinking of in particular is “Oh, the Fellowship spends nearly a month in Lorien and still misses Gandalf by a single day.” That is true. But given that Gandalf is given life again by the Valar, it is very safe to assume they would wait until they thought the time right to revive him. And damn it if they don’t seem to make the right choice. The Fellowship wouldn’t have broken up when it did if Gandalf had been with them – particularly if he had come back from the dead and met them, given how much all of them miss his leadership (why else, narratively speaking, does Aragorn need to talk so much about how much he wishes he didn’t need to lead in Gandalf’s place?). If the Fellowship hadn’t broken up, Frodo probably wouldn’t have made it through Mordor, in part because Gollum wouldn’t have tried to jump him and Sam, but also because he wouldn’t have suffered enough. Also, they probably would have died trying to climb over the Black Gate in the night.
Also, though, Merry and Pippin wouldn’t have roused the Ents, Saruman wouldn’t have been defeated, and there would have been more darkness on the land, c.f. argument 1.
So loyalty and fate. That’s what the early portion of this long novel is made of. What about Two Towers? Obviously it continues a good portion of those ideas. But it adds to the series / novel a sense of pacts, of accords. Merry and Pippin reach an agreement with Treebeard, which leads to Treebeard forging an accord among the Ents. Strider and co. make agreements with Eoden, which leads to them finding Gandalf, who reveals the truth to Theoden and allows the ancient accord between Gondor and Rohan to be honored, which it would otherwise not have. Frodo strikes a bargain with Gollum, and Faramir reaches a similar agreement with Frodo and Sam, both to let Gollum live and to help all three leave the environs of Osgiliath. Never mind the battle of the Hornburg, where elves and men ally against an invasion of orcs.
What can we see thus far, then? One book finished and the second barely started, what does The Lord of the Rings seem to be about? That obvious word: fellowship. In mourning and celebration, in war and and in peace, Tolkien’s work is about bringing people together. Elves and dwarves finally get along, men learn about hobbits and what they can do in the world when challenged, wizards, good ones, give up their sanctimonious brotherhood and share their power and wisdom with anyone who asks and is worthy… Basically, so far, we are presented a world in which only through working together can any single thing be achieved. And sure, many books make a similar point, but LotR doesn’t mess around with it. Every single thing functions as a result of companionship and fellowship. Sauron’s single defining characteristic is lonesomeness. He trusts no one, dominates but does not share. There’s only one ring to rule them all. Indeed, had he made more than one, he would have won, since Isildur’s father wouldn’t have taken both. But he refused the idea of multiplicity. Tolkien exhorts us to embrace multiplicity, to accept, to absorb, and to learn from everything and everyone. I have taken to trying to learn again, to stop being an expert all the time and instead try to see what is new around me. Unfortunately I’m not meeting many new people, or else I would try (probably gritting my teeth at first) to meet new people. Maybe I should be anyway.
That’s the lesson, or at least one of them, that these books offer. And it’s there all along, from the beginning. Frodo could never have left the Shire without his cousins and Sam. Where would we be, alone? As desolate as Sauron indeed.