I confess that I am one of those readers who often skips, skims or ignores prologues and introductions in my excitement to get to the story proper. I’m also concerned that the author might inadvertently reveal an important feature of the story to come.
But this time, with my aim to reread the HLOTR leisurely and thoughtfully, I took my time with the Prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring and I noticed several interesting things.
The main thing that struck me this time, was that Tolkien clearly tells us in his Prologue that Frodo, Samwise, Merry and Pippin all survive the war that he is about to tell us about.
He reveals that Merry (Meriadoc Brandybuck) writes a book called the Herblore of the Shire and later becomes the Master of Buckland. Frodo brings Bilbo’s journals back to The Shire and adds his own account of the war. Tolkien refers to the descendants of the children of Master Samwise and the great grandson of Peregrin.
The first time I read LOTR I skimmed the Prologue. I found it dry and irrelevant. I had just finished The Hobbit and felt that I knew enough about hobbits and what I didn’t know I would learn as I went along.
The second time I read LOTR I did tackle the Prologue but I still didn’t pick up that our four main hobbits were clearly referenced with post war happenings.
With this reread, I not only tackled the Prologue, I thoroughly enjoyed every word of it. Yes, it reads like a dry history text, but it’s meant to.
I was impressed with the depth and breadth of Tolkien’s knowledge about his created world. He has created distinct languages, legends, customs, history and geography for his three breeds of hobbit. The inhabitants of this world have racial characteristics as well as individual regional differences and personal temperaments. They live in a variety of socio-economic states and enjoy diverse lifestyle choices. He explains their forms of government as well as local rules and laws.
Although the prologue is all about hobbits, Tolkien divulges how The Shire fits within the bigger world picture. He references the Red Book of Westmarch, of which The Hobbit, or as Bilbo preferred to call it, There And Back Again, was just a small part in the earlier chapters. He mentions several other ancient texts as well as future ones to be written by our main characters – you would have to agree that the prologue shows Tolkien as a master of intertextuality!
We find out that we are in the Third Age of Middle Earth (what about the other two?) and we are given several hints of the troubles to come.
Bilbo’s ‘alternate facts’ around the finding of the ring are given a whole section in the prologue. Much of Gandalf’s curiosity about the origins of the ring and it’s power stem from this uncharacteristic fudging of the truth by Bilbo (a fudging that we were not aware of during our reading of The Hobbit). We are then reminded of this disturbing train of events early in chapter one. Tolkien really wants us to know that the ring somehow influenced Bilbo to act deceptively and out of character.
And perhaps, it’s also Tolkien’s way of having fun with the fact that he did indeed change large sections of the finding of the ring scenes from the first edition of The Hobbit, to later versions that he wrote to bring it into line with events in the LOTR.
And, in case you were wondering, like I was, why there was a whole section on pipe smoking, it’s to surely show us that Merry lives to write his smoking book, which our omniscient narrator then quotes from at length!
Assuming, as I have that an author includes a prologue for a reason, why does Tolkien want us to know that Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin all survive the war?
Part of the pleasure of my first read, nearly 30 years ago, was the suspense and tension of not knowing if all my favourite hobbits would live. The modern reader is used to authors killing off main characters for dramatic purposes; I was therefore expecting to lose at least one of the four hobbits for good.
I wonder if it has anything to do with Tolkien’s own war time experiences?
In his foreword, Tolkien sadly explains that by 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead. Perhaps he doesn’t want his readers (who were initially his own children) to live through the same tragic circumstances. The fear of not knowing which hobbits will survive the coming ordeal is spared us, the alert reader.
How did you find the Prologue?