FOTR: the poem and prologue

Dear Readers with Daniel,

Here's how I would like to read The Fellowship of the Ring

I would like to approach it as a standalone novel. I would like to chart and uncover how Tolkien designed the book, how the story builds and develops through the major sections of the story, and what information is given to us early on and what is held back. 

I know that's not the only, or even the best way to read the book. We could instead see it as...

  1. The first third of the epic The Lord of the Rings
  2. The sequel to The Hobbit
  3. A brief series of events from the wider mythos and worldbuilding of Middle Earth / the Third Age etc.

These choices really matter! An example: the narrator often talks about the ancient island of Numenor throughout the books of LOTR. It's important for the world-building and character motivations of many key people in the story. However, the narrator does not really give us a full picture of Numenor -- even though many characters could easily explain its history. It is left mysterious, if slightly less so by the end of the third book in the saga.

Now, if we are seeing The Fellowship of the Ring as the beginning of the three-book epic, then maybe we could collect all the clues about Numenor as we go and, at the end of the saga, try to put them all together. Alternatively, if we are reading with all of the mythos that fans have collected, we could easily read up on Numenor and find out everything Tolkien ever shared about it. 

That's not how I want to approach this, however. For this read-through, I will just go by the information shared with us in The Fellowship. The imagined reader is one turning pages of the story without anything else to go on and no firm commitment to read all three books. 

I think this framing is important because we are reading for craft lessons, and we cannot expect our own readers to be more obsessive researchers than some imagined first-time discoverer of Tolkien. 

Does that make sense?

Everyone can learn from this book

I am nervous that some of us will think this novel is "too fantasy" for you to learn from. I disagree! I think there is a lot to absorb no matter your genre.

The Epigraph / Poem

The Fellowship has an epigraph, the famous poem:

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

Starting a novel with a poem like this is a tricky thing to get right! The poem however states the secret of the one ring, and the essentials of the plot, in concise form. There is a Dark Lord; he lives in Mordor; humanity is weaker than the older races and yet will have to face him.

In particular, I love the shift in velocity at the line "One Ring to rule them all" -- notice how the line picks up pace, the adjectives and prepositions from the earlier, more languid lines dropping out. There is something menacing here. 

The Prologue

You can read the prologue here.

I'm not sure what to say about the prologue that introduces hobbits, pipeweed, and how Bilbo got the ring. Honestly it feels like the kind of thing you should absolutely not do in your own writing! Rather than introducing us to a main character with a problem (hint hint what I always recommend), Tolkien gives us a series of facts and histories about hobbits. 

The final section of the prologue is the strangest of all: Tolkien's narrator talks as though hundreds, maybe thousands of years have passed since the events of the story, and references the grandchildren of some of the characters -- and the death from old age of one of them!

In a sense, the key part of the prologue comes in the middle, with the reminder / introduction of how Bilbo got the ring in the first place, stealing it from Gollum. It almost feels as though Tolkien is retro-fitting the events of the Hobbit to play more serious role in this broader epic. But do we truly need to know this before page one? I'm not sure.

As a reader, I enjoyed this prologue. As a writing teacher, I want to say: probably you should not do this yourself!

What do you think?

Yours,

Daniel

  • I first read The Hobbit and LOTR in 1969 (age 11); my goal is to really try to read with fresh eyes. Regarding the prologue, I think to a new reader the portions on hobbits and how Bilbo acquired the ring would be useful table setting. The section on pipeweed, while I enjoyed reading it, I’m a bit baffled by its inclusion. I did find the prologue a bit long and was itching to finish. Regarding the poem – indelible!

    • Hi Nancy, I agree that the prologue does offer useful information… We could easily imagine, of course, a different novel where the first line said something like “Frodo was worried about Bilbo’s party…” and we slowly learn about hobbits, the story of the ring, and pipe weed as the party approaches — in the action of Frodo worrying about Bilbo. Obviously — in reality — the Tolkien estate does not need my editing suggestions — but I do think if someone came to me with a new novel draft bearing this kind of prologue and asked for feedback, I would advise weaving most of this exposition into the opening chapters!

      • This is why it is worth reading with you and discussing with you, Daniel. I do appreciate the advice on weaving this type of thing into the first chapters. 🙂

        Wondering if part of the way he writes is the style of the day? I haven’t read too many books from the time he wrote The Fellowship. Was this Prologue a thing writers did more often then?

        • I, too, was wondering if the prologue was written in the style of the day. I went as far as to take notes that restyled the words in modern terms which I can understand.

      • That’s were my brain went Daniel – how could you weave this info into the opening chapters? Interesting points about the culture and writing styles at the time and how that may also factor in. If we could only have a one-on-one with JRR …

    • I first read the Hobbit when I was ten or eleven myself and I have no idea what I might have thought of it then. Probably I was eager to get on to something happening.

  • I’m embarrassed to say I’ve not read any of Tolkien. I’m familiar with him because of friends who have, and Maryrose Wood who uses The Hobbit among other books when she teaches the Hero’s Journey.

    The prologue was chock-full of new words, geography and history. I found it a challenge to get through, and also thought it could discourage me from wanting to know more. But of course I will continue to read! It just seemed a daunting way to start.

    And, I thought it odd that Tolkien would do this when in the Hobbit, he took pains to provide just a little information before starting the adventure. He wrote on page 3, (Kindle Book Version) “Now you know enough to go on with.” Loved that!

    The poem is wonderful. So very menacing with words and pacing. Terri

  • The prologue reminds me a bit of the way fairy tales always start with “once upon a time” and I think it serves a similar function, if that makes sense. Tolkien set out to write a fictional history as transcribed in a culture more disposed to telling stories as part of an oral tradition, and the prologue very much has that feel to it with its weird digressions etc.

    I also think this weird, meandering prologue serves to set the scene, in a way, for a stark juxtaposition with the action and darkness soon to follow–in a way even the party etc doesn’t fully (particularly because Bilbo is already so strange and such a focus of the opening).

    The other thing to be considered is context, I think. Fantasy was nowhere near as popular or prevalent as it is today. Probably Tolkien wanted to be very certain that people really understood that Hobbits were like humans, but also very much not like humans, in a space where characters were usually clearly human or not-human.

    • Yes, this is it. Thank you for explaining your thoughts on the purpose of this meandering prologue. Your explanation of setting the scene for the darkness that follows is right-on. Not only all the digressions but also the many characters and geography plus name changes are difficult to keep track of. Daniel’s, your notes, and others have cleared up much for me.

    • Felicitas says:

      I go along with your thought that back in Tolkiens times people were not yet as much used to consuming so many and various kinds of stories as we are nowadays. I think to them everything Tolkien says must have been very much captivating. Whereas for us nowadays, a prologue with so much exposition seems strange. And honestly, if I had just accidentally grabbed this book and known nothing about the story, I don´t think I would have read on.

    • So true – and I feel like that in many ways, the setting and feel of the hobbit world is innocent, childlike, warm and simple and as you’ve already said – strangely familiar. In many ways, we feel welcomed and comfortable and intrigued by the history and life of the hobbits.

  • Hello,
    I want to thank all of you for your participation and explanations here. I’ll add a special thanks to Daniel for this class that pulls us together.
    I admit I’ve been absent from “Reading with Daniel.” I’ve read the books with the intent of going back to the study part. Since my intent never happened, I decided to come back to the group.
    At my age, I worry about Alzheimer’s. To avoid Alzheimer’s and other memory problems it’s recommended to learn something new every day. Therefore, I’m happy to be back because there’s no better learning than reading with a purpose. Plus, I get to improve my writing.
    I also have not read Tolkien before, but always wanted to. I confess the prologue is a bit daunting. Without you, I’d be lost.
    Thank you again,
    Dianne

  • I do agree that long prologues are not typical, but The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan does have some lengthy prologues. For Tolkien, he clearly was filling in for those who had not read The Hobbit. I am not sure when I first read The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Rings, but I believe it was around 1975. I have read these books at least twice. I think most readers today would not appreciate a long prologue and the material is best woven into the chapters as appropriate to the story.

  • Luke Kendall says:

    I agree that this kind of prologue would not work for most readers today. Even at the time he wrote this, with his background as a Professor of English at Oxford, it was a bit of an ‘ask’. I think that because TLOTR was very nearly the progenitor of the whole Fantasy genre (certainly the book that made it popular), I think he was breaking new ground and for all those things combined he was able to set his own rules.
    Frankly, I skilled the Foreword and the lengthy and dry Prologue, partly because I’d read the trilogy only 48 years ago (as well as studying them in final year English at high school too), so I justified in not re-reading them.
    I feel that partly what he was doing in these sections was setting a serious and scholarly tone, because at the time Fantasy was I think considered something very fanciful and unworthy of attention by serious writers or literary scholars. Starting with this historiographic tone I think helped counter that.
    I’m struck by how like the pseudo-historical sections of Lovercraft’s work it is, written for the same reason I feel; or for a more modern example, the historical commentary written by scholarly cats in Marjorie M Liu’s Monstress graphic novels.
    I can’t think of any modern fantasy novels that start with a prologue this long or this dry; but at the time, I think it both grounded the work and whet the appetite of readers eager to get to the real story. (And even then, it starts off with an extremely discursive and leisurely style.)

    • Felicitas says:

      So you would say in Tolkien’s time “fantasy”wasn’t much appreciated although for thousands of years some sort of “fantasy” has been present in mythical lore? Many elements of LOTR remined me of Richard Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelung” (Der Ring der Nibelungen in German). And I bet Wagner himself drew much from even older lore.

  • Luke Kendall says:

    (“skilled” -> “skipped”)

  • Felicitas says:

    Has the Hobbit originally been written as a children´s book and LOTR for adults who can handle more exposition and unusual words? But then at the same time the prologue feels to me as if it had been written for fans who wished to dive deeper into the hobbit world. Because honestly, a totally new, fresh reader wouldn´t need any of this prologue, I think. Except for the poem, I would definitely leave that in, as it gives a sense of poetical urgency to the beginning of the story. I love that. I have a poem myself at the beginning of my next book.

  • I would love to have a chat with Tolkien about the prologue: why did he include information on pipeweed? What was his intention for the prologue? Was he getting lots of questions about the backstory to Middle Earth after “The Hobbit” was published?

    I found that most of the prologue got my brain settled into the world of Middle Earth, with hobbits as the entry point. The section on tobacco felt like Tolkien just couldn’t help throwing in an interesting tidbit. Yes, we will see tobacco mentioned throughout the series, but I didn’t need it’s history.

    The poem made me curious to want to know more. It also felt ominous and threatening, promising dark times ahead.

  • I agree with others that the prologue is very much a product of its time – an era in which one could not download the first several chapters of ten different books, instantly, for free, before deciding which one was exciting enough to buy. Also, Tolkien wrote these stories as a passion project, but the passion was the mythology of Middle Earth (and his various political commentaries) more than the writing of a commercially viable novel, and it is the staggering success of the genre of high fantasy adventure that this epic spawned, more than its actual literary brilliance, that has made LOTR an enduring creation.

    That said… my 30-year-old copy has been visibly well-loved. I remember, as a child, finding Tolkien’s voice interesting even when the subject matter was incomprehensible, and I pored over this prologue with particular care. I was not interested in getting on to the action; I wanted to learn all about hobbits!

  • One of my best friends is English. This type of a story is typical of that part of the world for many, many decades at least, based on our conversations. When she talks about he kids books she grew up on I realize we come from different worlds/countries. Fantasy is inherent in their culture.
    Tolkien’s reasonings may need to be understood from an English perspective rather than a North American one; from the
    craft of their writing in this genre rather than ours?

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