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?
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