FOTR: to chapter two refer don't explain

We are now reading The Fellowship of the Ring. I'll admit -- I'm nervous -- this is a big novel. Let's see how we make progress through it.

Today we are reading to the end of chapter two. And I want to make a paradoxical point for the craft lesson -- although this chapter is FULL of exposition -- it is also interesting what Tolkien does not explain or exposit. 


The novel opens with Bilbo planning a birthday party and staging a disappearance during it. Through the intervention of Gandalf, a friendly visiting wizard, he is persuaded to give up his mysterious ring, the source of his ability to turn invisible and his long life -- and he sets off on a journey. 

The story then shifts to his heir, Frodo, who now has the ring. Frodo now, to the other people in the shire, seems to not to be ageing. 

And then Gandalf returns to give Frodo very bad news. This ring is actually the One Ring, the ancient creation of the dark lord Sauron, who intends to crush all of Middle Earth. The ring is powerful, but it corrupts, eventually reducing its wielder to a shadow in the service of Sauron. And now Sauron has discovered that the ring is found -- he will seek out Frodo and the hobbits of the shire.

Frodo also discovers that he is protective of the ring -- he does not want to give it up. Gandalf tells him the story of the last bearer of the ring, Gollum, who became a monster through his fascination with it. 

Craft lesson: Refer, don't explain

Okay. There is obviously a lot of exposition in this part of the story. Gandalf reels off a lot of names and history for an opening chapter.

And frankly I would not recommend you try to replicate this in your own fiction. If I were advising a writer attempting to tell a similar story to this one today, I would definitely advise putting the Golem tale in a later chapter. 

Get Frodo -- and the story -- moving! 

That said, I can see two ways in which the story prepares the reader for this introduction of the ring's history.

Firstly, we shown the mystery of the ring before we get the exposition. We see that Bilbo is not getting older, can turn invisible, and seems to have a compulsion for keeping it. 

That is pretty interesting! A tension has opened up for the reader.

And so we are willing to hear a story from Gandalf about the ring's origin. 

Secondly, note what Tolkien does not explain in this section. He tells the story of Gollum in great detail, for instance. But despite all the long names and historical events, Tolkien seems to keep the story very grounded in everyday, visualisable scenes. 

We learn that the dark lord wants the ring, which he created but lost. Who is he? Why is there a dark lord? The chapter does not explain.

What is Westernesse, which the men come from to defeat Sauron in battle? The chapter does not explain.

What does the ring do? Gandalf just says it contains a lot of the enemy's power, and that Frodo should not use it.

I would suggest this rule: when the reader would have to understand something alien to everyday experience, Tolkien avoids explaining it. 

We learn about battles, Gollum's long life, the dark lord's spies -- but we not asked to imagine abstract things, like the powers of the ring or the heavenly world that could have led to the existence of a dark lord. 

I think this focus on the practical, everyday, relatively prosaic makes for easier reading.

What do you think about this?

Share your thoughts below:



  • I have a question about the amount of information that’s included in these chapters and the timeline: full disclosure, I watched the movie first. So now I’m reading the book, knowing how the movie treats it. And in reading the book, it feels like there’s a lot of superfluous information to the story: for example, the pages of people going into the house and taking bilbo’s labeled items – it seemed very long, and I couldn’t figure out the reason for it. And in the book, Frodo spends years in the spire after Bilbo leaves, and again, a lot of description. I’m just wondering how that’s useful? I’m not criticizing the book, I’m asking from curiosity. Thanks.

    • Luke Kendall says:

      I think a lot of that is simply a mark of its time, in two ways. First, I believe novels of the time generally were slower paced, matching the less frenetic pace of the times themselves; and second, Fantasy scarcely existed as a genre when he wrote this (there were a few, like The King of Elfland’s Daughter, or Phantastes, or Lilith, but they were uncommon and not hugely popular.) So the everyday parts provide a solid grounding in the familiar, perhaps for reassurance, as more and more fantasy elements are gradually brought in.

  • melnick1936 says:

    When I wrote the first section of my fantasy novel, I tried to use what I was taught about how Tolkien introduces an unknown concept, puts it in context, and then explains. I like how you explain how he does this with examples. I am now writing the introduction of a new setting and characters for the last third of my novel and using this advice, intrigue the reader and then explain,
    I’m ambivalent about the inclusion of the Gollem story. Readers of the Hobbit might expect it right away. The chapter is long, and the story could wait for another chapter. But for a reader of the last book, it assures them the story they enjoyed will continue in this book.
    Ther is much for writers of any genre to learn from this book.

  • Felicitas says:

    I love Tolkiens introduction of the ring through those very easily understandable and yet captivating mysteries like: becoming invisible and not ageing. This adds to the fairy tale feeling in this book that is otherwise so much darker and heavier than The Hobbit.

    And also the whole secretive atmosphere he creates around Bilbo in contrast to the very down-to-earth hobbits who are usually defensive to anything that sounds too strange to their ears. This creates a tension within the otherwise rather uneventful Shire that serves already as a foreshadowing for the tension to come. Great!

    There are some dialogues that I think are geniously crafted, e.g. the foreshadowing when Gandalf says: “Stick to your plan – your whole plan, mind …” It gives me the chills and I want to find out what “the whole plan” is which is only revealed many pages later.

    Also I feel that the little jokes Tolkien skillfully inserts make up for the sometimes lengthy exposition parts.

    Now, the story really got me. (Something I couldn´t have said after the prologue.)

  • I think when Tolkien wrote this adventure readers were accustomed to a slower pace and may have been willing to read over days, maybe even months for their entertainment. The fact that it has endured, become a classic and continues to gain fans has to be due to the story itself. It inspires me to take good care of the story I’m writing. His story is fantastic. I’m glad we’re doing this together – otherwise I might not be able to finish! Terri

  • This reminds me of foreign travel: people don’t stop and explain all the strange things around you unless you ask, and then you might not totally understand the answer based on your experience to date.

    Gandalf is helping to understand this ‘new culture’ while hinting that he has questions himself.

    While there isn’t much in the way of action, it feels like the reader is getting prepped for something big, something life changing. The tension is slow to build but it feels like there is a terrible menace that is hunting and building, and as a reader, I’m wondering when Frodo will be thrown into the mix.

  • I think the focus on the practical and the prosaic allows the reader to acclimate and enter the Shire as a fully developed world. Even though we are not immediately immersed in action, I’m still pulled forward by the hints of danger and trouble to come.

  • All I have to say is I’m relieved. The prologue was unsettling because of the difficulty following Tolkien’s meandering ways. I thought this book would be too hard for me to read.
    The first two chapters are quite easy to follow. There may be unnecessary fluff, but this stuff is downright funny and often surprising.
    The unruly hobbits remind me of the wild parties of my youth which not only had food, drink, and dancing in the yard but were also full of gossip, complaints, and arguments. Although we didn’t break into houses, wreck stuff, or steal we had our share of misbehavior. Please don’t judge it was the 70’s.

  • Luke Kendall says:

    I feel chapter two flows nicely from chapter one, with a very similar pacing, still building the bucolic picture and giving us a good sense of the very down to earth hobbits, all very relatable and believable characters.
    I especially like the high fantasy element introduced with the Elvish script (this was a striking feature of the book, that Tolkien had invented a beautiful cursive language and alphabet that in its very design suggests (foreshadows?) the beauty and elegance of his Elven folk) and its use for the ominous and informative poem, that ends with such a strong pair of lines:
    “One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them
    In the Land of Mordor, where the Shadows lie.”
    Even today I feel an echo of the threat I felt when I first read those lines, many years ago.
    It reminds me that Tolkien does something I appreciate whenever I encounter it, which I think of as “gifts for the reader” – a passage of lyrical beauty, a clever little pun, a fun play on words, an insightful little thought. Things that don’t really drive the plot or the action, seemingly just there for the reader’s pleasure.

  • Bilbo’s eleventieth birthday party is one of my favorite scenes in this entire epic. And I think Tolkien was including it for a couple of important reasons:
    – He’s building a bridge from The Hobbit, a fairly simple and accessible story, to the bigger and harder and more intense LOTR.
    – I recently watched the Halloween course, where Daniel talks about how in movies you can start out by watching a charismatic actor living an ordinary day, making toast, and people are interested. I think to many readers Bilbo may be a sort of literary Jason Bateman, bumbling but lovable, and watching him make trivial little lists is fun.
    – For Frodo, this is motivation. Frodo may be a young and adventurous hobbit, but he’s still a hobbit. Why would he travel to the literal end of the earth to destroy a ring? To save the world, blah blah blah, but really to save his Uncle Bilbo and the Shire. Tolkien is showing us the real stakes.
    – Perhaps it’s also a bit political – LOTR is commonly considered an allegory about industrialism / communism / fascism / all the mid-20th-century Big Bads. So we need to have pastoral England (=the Shire) to motivate the hero’s willingness to fight them.

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