FOTR chapter three - on reluctance

We are reading The Fellowship of the Ring. I am really enjoying your comments -- thank you all. And if you had a problem listening to the audio lessons, they are now re-formatted -- give them another chance. 

Today I wanted to talk about Frodo's reluctance -- and again about the novel's avoidance of explanation. 

You can discuss the chapters here: 


Frodo is reluctant to leave home. He settles on a trip to Rivendell, where the elves live -- he doesn't actually where to go, only that he has to take the ring away from the shire. He delays until his birthday, only to discover that Gandalf has not reappeared. Worried, he sets off alone with his companions, only to discover that he is being followed. The group are temporarily relieved to find a party of elves on the road, who treat them kindly, but warn them of danger ahead.

Craft lesson 1: the protagonist's reluctance

Frodo is a great protagonist because he absolutely does not want to go on this quest. He accepts that he has to do it, but he delays for as long as possible -- leading to great danger for himself and others. He refuses to make a plan for the trip, instead putting all his energy into Shire-related activities like his farewell dinner. 

And the book doesn't try to minimise this reluctance. The narration does not try to hint that this trip will be good for Frodo, nor that he will benefit from the journey. There is no cheerful narrative presence promising us all will be okay (as there is, to an extent, in the opening chapters of The Hobbit). 

Tied to this reluctance is Frodo's failure to ask enough questions. He could surely have pressed Gandalf for more information; he could have led the plan for most of the walk through the Shire. But he doesn't want to go! Of course he doesn't create a detailed plan. 

Craft tip: can you make your protagonist more reticent, reluctance, and unwilling?

Craft lesson 2: Avoid explanations

I know I already talked about this -- but it is so important. Notice how Tolkien avoids explanations early in this story. There is a great moment where Frodo asks the elves for information about the Black Riders, and his new elven friends refuse:

"Flee them! Speak no words to them! They are deadly. Ask no more of me!"

Of course, we have to assume that Gildor knows a lot about the riders. But he refuses to say much. The reader is left to wait for specifics.

Note that Gildor does clarify the stakes, here: the riders are dangerous and implacable and cannot be bargained or reasoned with. That's sufficient for this chapter: how serious are they? But Tolkien holds back what they are and why they are so dangerous. 

Craft tip: try to hint more, and explain less, in the early chapters.

Note 1:

This isn't really a craft lesson, but it is something I find so fascinating about LOTR. Notice how the elves -- Gildor and the others -- do not seemingly do "magic" in an overt way. They just seem to do things better than anyone else.

Sam says of their food:

Well, sir, if I could grow apples like that, I would call myself a gardener.

I love how Tolkien presents the elves -- not as Marvel characters firing lasers from their eyes -- but as people constantly living a better life than everyone else.

Note 2:

Just a bit of Tolkien background -- you might not know this up front, because Tolkien does not explain -- but Gandalf is not a "wizard" in the usual sense. He did not grow up as a talented child then go to wizarding school. Rather Gandalf is a created being, sent by the benevolent forces of the world, to aid Middle Earth. As a result, it's not possible for Frodo or Merry to learn magic from him. 

Share your thoughts below!



  • Chapter three was the first to really capture my interest. Now I’m onboard and looking forward to chapter four. The story feels real to me.

  • Luke Kendall says:

    Reading it now, I wanted a bit more of a justification for Glorfindel’s parsimony with information. Especially regarding the Black Riders, I felt it was plot overriding character a little bit, that made he didn’t give a little more advice about how best to avoid them, especially since he knows Gandalf supported Frodo’s mission, Gandalf had missed a rendezvous, and that the Black Riders were seeking Frodo.
    As for the magic in TLOTR, it is far from flashy. It feels quiet, part of the background almost, for the most part; something that provides a little extra help to achieve an end, rather than a way to achieve an end with one magical act.

    • I wonder….who’s the best character(s) to tell the story of the Black Riders to the hobbits? And at what point in the story? How does the not knowing affect the tension?

      Tolkien makes the elves seem uninvolved in the doings of other inhabitants of Middle Earth, unless it affects the elves directly.

  • Luke Kendall says:

    (I meant Gildor, not Glorfindel!)

  • Daniel – would it be possible for you to mention where we are in terms of story structure as we go along (Act I, inciting incident, dark night of the soul, etc.)? It would greatly help me to recognize all of these parts. Thanks!

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