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LotR: The Fellowship of the Ring
Kate kate_nepveu
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LotR re-read: FotR I.1, "A Long-expected Party"

I think I'm going to start each chapter post with a bare-bones "What Happens" section, just for reference. I'm not going to commit myself to structure beyond that; let's just see what happens.

(Besides taking me forever to compose, that is. Also, reminder: spoilers for anything Middle-Earth are fair game for these posts.)

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, and the rumors of Bilbo's wealth, in the local inn. Dwarves and Gandalf arrive for party setup.

The party is held on September 22nd; there is food, fireworks, and Bilbo's 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 goes 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 the ring, 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!" [-]

I'm sure more reversals could be identified, but I'm most interested in the last paragraph. 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 don't know how much this idea comes out of Tolkien's theology (my first reaction is "faith not works," but my knowledge of Catholicism is very limited), but wherever it comes from, 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.

* * * *

Overall, I think this chapter functions as a transition 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. Because it's a transition, I suspect it may be off-putting for those who haven't read The Hobbit and don't need it. It's certainly the right place to start the story, but I wonder if the chapter could have been done with more of a focus on Frodo from the start.

In what may be related, this is a very exterior chapter. The first hints 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.

* * * *

The conversation at the inn is the first time on-screen characters talk. The Gaffer, a gardener, is the POV figure (with the occasional interior thought) and through him, we are led to dislike Sandyman. There's a hint at 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." I think this works in three different directions: obviously, it signals the Gaffer's perceptions about class; it relates, I think, to the passing of the generational torch above; and it's an example of 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 never consciously noted [*], 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."

[*] Have I mentioned that a lot of these posts are going to be me admitting that I've overlooked stuff for years? Yeah.

More evidence of his character and resilience over the long term, not just when confronted by Gandalf.

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.

I believe we get an explanation later from Gandalf on why he's only now starting to worry about the Ring; I seem to recall many people finding it somewhat unsatisfactory, but we'll get there in good time. At any rate, 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.

* * * *

Random notes:

  • Sam's stated to be the youngest child of the Gaffer. Somehow I never saw Sam as having siblings before.
  • The firecrackers include "dwarf-candles, elf-fountains, goblin-barkers." The first might be a manufacture designation, but I doubt the last two are; I wonder what they look like?
  • Relatedly, 6:30 seems pretty early for fireworks to me. (The web tells me that in London on September 22, sunset is about at 7.)
  • 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."
  • At the party, "Master Everard Took and Miss Melilot Brandybuck got on a table and with bells in their hands began to dance the Springle-ring: a pretty dance, but rather vigorous." I keep reading that as "Spring-ringle"; I don't know if it's me or if Tolkien's naming powers failed him (I presume, based on skimming the first two pages of Google results, that this is a made-up dance).

Finally, a quick note on the movies, because Chad asked and others might be curious: so far they've only helped. I'm not good at imagining faces or voices, and I largely find that hearing Ian McKellen, for instance, is an improvement over the non-hearing that I usually get when reading. And I have no problem substituting my preferred reading of lines in my head—in fact I did so all through the movies anyway. But this isn't a series of posts about the movie adaptations generally, and I'd prefer that comments stay focused on the books.

[ more LotR re-read posts ]

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"It will have to be paid for."

To me, this is a salient point which is too often overlooked -- I started to write "in fantasy", but probably in all fiction. I find happy endings where no one pays a price really really annoying, shallow and flat.


I agree. But I am equally annoyed by the endings where the price is paid in a manner as obvious as would be plunking down some cash at a register. The subtlety of tying in Frodo's final lament with this casual remark at the beginning - which I'd never consciously noted - is just one example of Tolkien's inexhaustible richness. Or, why he's so good.

(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2006-06-06 03:21 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2006-06-06 03:19 pm (UTC)(Expand)
I've always pictured 'elf-fountain' as a shower of golden leaves, but I freely admit this is just me and has no textual basis at all.

6:30 would be pre-sunset dusk, still summer dusk at that time of year, very dim under the trees and in the valleys but with a lot of light still in the heights. I've seen fireworks in that sort of light, and they are odd and eye-catching and are more visible than one might expect.

It has amused me deeply for years that Otho is also the name of one of the shortest-reigning Emperors of Rome.

The lack of specificity is either odd or a nice casual world-building touch, considering the fairly specific descriptions just after of flowers falling from tree branches and the like (which is so very cool).

And there's something ineffectual-sounding about Otho as a word, isn't there? At least that's how I hear it.

Tolkien had a really difficult time getting started on this chapter, in large part because he only embarked on a sequel at his publisher's suggestion and had no idea where he wanted the story to go. At first he figured the hero would have to be Bilbo again, but he ran up against the statement at the end of The Hobbit, "He remained very happy to the end of his days," which tended to preclude another harrowing adventure. Then for a while the hero would be Bilbo's son (or nephew?), Bingo.

And what would Bingo do? Eventually Tolkien hit on an answer: return (but to whom?) the Ring.

I like the way that the story doesn't start with Frodo, and the characters only slowly and haphazardly collect. Makes it seem more real. And there's almost sufficient emphasis on the fact that most hobbits are not like our heroes: they're ignorant, suspicious, xenophobic, and painfuly provincial, a point repeatedly made in the opening chapters. (Watch for the Gaffer's and his cronies' suspicious remarks about queer folks Buckland to be matched by equally suspicious remarks by Farmer Maggot about queer folks in Hobbiton.) Jackson tries to capture this provinciality by having Sam say that not very far on the journey is as far from home as he's ever been. While not textual, this is extremely believable.

_Bingo_. Wikipedia tells me there *is* a British game of the same name, though I can't tell how long it existed. Anyway, glad Tolkien didn't stick with that name.

Yes, I started reading that article on narrators you recommended last night. That's tonight's post; interesting stuff.

I'm not entirely sure what a Frodo-focused chapter would look like, particularly in such an external chapter; it was just a thought.

(no subject) - kalimac, 2006-06-06 03:57 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2006-06-06 03:57 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - silmaril, 2006-06-07 02:18 am (UTC)(Expand)


Made up by Tolkien, he says in his notes to translators. Also appears in his poem "Bombadil Goes Boating."

A couple points raised by a lot of commentaries:

1) the fireworks dragon "passed like an express train". An express train? Failure of tone.

2) The flowers in Bilbo's garden (this is before the Party) include nasturtians. Much argument by botanists over whether this should have been nasturtiums. Tolkien had asked his college's gardener:

T: What do you call these things, gardener?
G: I calls them tropaeolum, sir.
T: But when you're just talking to dons?
G: I says nasturtians, sir.
T: Not nasturtium?
G: No, sir, that's watercress.

Re: springle-ring

There is also a strong suggestion that in thinking of the topography of the Shire (particularly it's outer edges) Tolkien had in mind the Lancashire countryside of the Ribble valley, near Stoneyhurst, where his sons were educated [Stoneyhurst College is also supposed to be the model for Baskerville Hall] and that in doing his "vernacular" characters he draws upon the privates of the Lancashire Fusiliers, with whom he served in WWI. It is useful to note that a (deliberately used) Lancashire malapropism is "to cast nasturtians" (for aspersions) on someone's character.

(no subject) - kalimac, 2006-06-06 02:53 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2006-06-06 03:31 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ex_ajhalluk585, 2006-06-06 09:03 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalimac, 2006-06-07 12:46 am (UTC)(Expand)
Re: springle-ring - marikochan, 2006-06-06 10:21 am (UTC)(Expand)
Re: springle-ring - kate_nepveu, 2006-06-06 03:30 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Sam's stated to be the youngest child of the Gaffer. Somehow I never saw Sam as having siblings before.

I think of that as pointing at a flaw--the hobbits should be very family oriented, but there's almost no mention of relatives. Even if Frodo and Bilbo are isolated as hobbits go, Sam isn't.

When I've mentioned this to people, the usual reaction seems to be that LOTR is long enough already, but I think half a dozen lines would have been enough to indicate that Sam is thinking of other relatives as well as his Gaffer.

As for the Springle-Ring, I think it's a reasonable name for a dance that presumably involves both jumping and bells.

(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - pameladean, 2006-06-06 02:43 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalimac, 2006-06-06 02:56 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2006-06-06 03:32 pm (UTC)(Expand)
The firecrackers include "dwarf-candles, elf-fountains, goblin-barkers." The first might be a manufacture designation, but I doubt the last two are; I wonder what they look like?

Well, I know there's a sort of firework called a roman candle, so I've always wondered if there are similar types for the other ones as well. Never had the time to find out, alas. But looking at the naming--"candles" suggest a flare-like firework, that you perhaps hold while it's burning--like a sparkler, maybe. "Fountains" suggest some sort of rocket--going up into the air and then flaming outward, like the fall of a fountain. "Barkers" suggest noise so perhaps that's like firecrackers--things that make a lot of noise but little show.

Relatedly, 6:30 seems pretty early for fireworks to me. (The web tells me that in London on September 22, sunset is about at 7.)

Oh, I don't know--for an important occasion such as this, they may have started before sundown. Sort of like the 4th of July--around here, anyway, you can often hear backyard parties getting started early in the evening. And then the biggest, most elaborate shows would be after dark.

...and I largely find that hearing Ian McKellen, for instance, is an improvement over the non-hearing that I usually get when reading.

All respect due to Ian McKellen, but I can't help but hear John Houston's magisterial voice, myself. That Rankin Bass Hobbit really stuck in my lizard-brain.

In college (and for a bit after), we'd haphazardly organize read-aloud sessions of the Lord of the Rings, and, being a bunch of weisenheimers, would sometimes spice things up with impressions. One friend would read Frodo and Sam as Kermit and Fozzie, which is surprisingly touching and effective, once you get past the initial giggle. —Another would read Gandalf as Wallace Shawn from The Princess Bride (or anywhere else, really), and, which not too terribly touching, it was, in its own way, also surprisingly effective. When I don't hear John Houston, I hear Wallace Shawn.

I missed the Rankin-Bass _Hobbit_, though one of my early editions of it was an oversized version with cells of animation as illustrations (which I didn't realize for ages).

I am going to pretend I never heard of Wallace Shawn as Gandalf, for the sake of my brain.

(no subject) - orzelc, 2006-06-06 04:39 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Will keep scrolling back and forth to comment as I read.

"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."

In other words, yes, Frodo had to paid for it. I found it interesting, in a not-too-good sort of way, that I had real trouble explaining this to my parents. My sister included, all three wondered why Frodo had to leave in the end, and didn't get that his will to lead a life in the Shire had been shattered, along with his health and inner peace in general; my sister accepted my explanation which lay along those lines and the added "it had to be paid for;" my parents didn't.

I still can't figure out why they didn't.

perhaps it's hard to do evil-fueled paranoia in an interesting way;

Very likely, especially with the style of language Tolkien was using for that chapter---lighter and more open; as you pointed out, transition from The Hobbit. On the other hand, and here I do have to touch the movies a little bit, just give the scene to Ian Holm, and then stand back. Far back. That's one of the things the movie nailed, and I think that's partly because it's easier to do in the visual medium.

Tangentially, here's a perspective of someone who hadn't read The Hobbit before she read The Lord of the Rings: It obviously didn't serve as a transition for me, since I had nothing to transition from. But it did serve as an easing-in. When I read LotR I was sixteen, had never read fantasy, but liked reading about comfortable people in a mostly comfortable situation; even thought that interesting. Of course stories had to have conflict and upheavals to hold my interest, but to show the conflict, first the utter peacefulness of the scene had to be set, I think.

(Besides, it's even not that utterly peaceful. There are the rumors of unrest outside, and later Strider will imply that those were actually indicators of Very Very Bad Things Indeed.)

The "all and sundry" remark still makes me giggle. It's more amusing when you consider that this was the first time I'd met that phrase in English. I think I wasn't taken in by the narrator but looked the meaning up pretty quickly, and yet I was still entertained.

Your family's reaction was to the books, not the movies? Because as I've said before, the movies really fail at showing this.

I think it's a fairly fundamental worldview and can resonate in some odd ways (I think you've not seen _Fullmetal Alchemist_, but a *lot* of my long posts on that show had to do with the concept of "equivalent exchange" as a moral rather than just an alchemical principle), so it doesn't quite surprise me that people would be resistant to it. Heck, I'm resistant to it in some ways, especially outside of what's satisfying in literature.

Thanks for the perspective. Quite a lot of writing advice is about grabbing the reader from the first page, so it's interesting to hear that easing-in can work too.

reading the Fellowship first; calendar geeking

I read LotR first, and don't recall any difficulty getting into it (I was 11, so a long time ago. A cousin gave me all four books for my birthday, and hadn't told me where to start.)

That Web site is giving you sunset in modern terms--British Summer Time (daylight saving).

The Shire would have been using local (no time zones in that pre-railroad culture) solar time; if you're using the Gregorian calendar, on 22 September sunset is at 6:00 local time (in London or anywhere else). I don't recall whether Shire Reckoning is closer to that or to Julian, or even whether Tolkien discussed the matter, and the cat on my lap would rather I not go consult the appendices.

Re: reading the Fellowship first; calendar geeking

I wasn't sure about the Summer Time issue, thanks. All the same, half-hour after sunset is still pretty light, at least in these latitudes.

Ah well, it was a small point. I just like fireworks. =>

More humor from the first chapter (though I didn't twig to it until at least my third or fourth reading):

When explaining the presence of all the hobbit children at the party, the narrator observes that hobbits are tolerant in their child-rearing habits, especially when it involves getting a free meal, because "raising young hobbits takes a lot of provender." Hee.

At the risk of repeating the obvious for the umpteenth time, the observation that "it must be paid for" is forshadowing of what, to me, is a major theme of the work, and ties into the related theme of the loss or passing of the ancient and beautiful so that something, perhaps diminished, can yet remain. And so, in parallel with Frodo's loss and passing, we get departure of Galadriel and Elrond (and Gandalf, but he's more sui generis, I think), and the foreshadowed passing of the Ents.


Which, if I'm not careful, will lead me to what got me so cranky about The Silmarillion, and no-one wants that.

Yes, the provender line is a good one too; I was trimming my notes pretty ruthlessly. I think if I had the time, I could find something to say about every page without stretching myself, but there has to be a limit, for the sake of my hands if nothing else.

(no subject) - (Anonymous), 2006-06-06 09:14 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(Deleted comment)
Thanks! So far I'm enjoying it too.