2020 has been traumatic for so many reasons. We first started hearing glimmers of news from across the ocean in late January. As far as I knew, it was something happening across the ocean and probably wouldn’t effect my life in any way.
How wrong I was.
At the time it seemed to be happening slowly, but looking back it seemed like it had upended everything in the blink of an eye.
And then, about the time the Mayor of Houston announced the stay at home order, I glanced longingly at my book shelf to decide how I might pass the time.
Three little books caught my eye.
I’d been meaning to read them for a very long time. In fact, I remember acquiring these three little books shortly after Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring hit theaters in 2001. That means these books have been sitting patiently on the shelves for nineteen years – two years longer than it took Frodo to leave The Shire after the Ring came into his possession!
We all dealt with life during the COVID-19 pandemic (which is still an ongoing pandemic, at the time of this writing) in our own ways, and I drew encouragement from many sources.
But in a way, it feels like a bit of predestination that it was exactly at this moment that I chose to pick up and begin reading The Fellowship of the Ring during these days in particular. Every chapter is so shrouded in darkness, and everyone so full of optimistic hope. It seemed in a way to mirror our own times. I thought it would be a nice book to escape into, and instead I found a book that forced me to consider the times in a way I may not have otherwise done.
While Tolkien himself was adamant his work was not allegorical in any way, especially regarding his experiences during The Great War (I won’t waste time expounding on this here. Other’s have devoted much time to these discussions. Just google it), I do not think he would in any way be opposed to each reader allowing his work to speak to him or her in it’s own way.
It is also false, though naturally attractive, when the lives of an author and critic have overlapped, to suppose that the movements of thought or the vents of times common to both were necessarily the most powerful influences. One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years.
Tolkien was effected by all of life in all of it’s horribleness and all of it’s beauty. The Lord of the Rings was the product of an entire life experienced. Later on in the same paragraph, he notes,
The country in which I lived in childhood [South Africa] was being shabbily destroyed before I was ten in days when motor-cars were rare objects… and men were still building suburban railways.
And here you must forgive me for reading anything into Tolkien – he was merely trying to make a point that his work was not in anyway an allegory regarding the tough years that Europe faced in those days – but I suspect he would have been delighted that his book could speak to so many dark days ahead of him.
Tolkien understood well, not from experiencing one excruciating war, but from experiencing all of life, that the world can be a cold, dark place at times.
And yet, isn’t there hope in it?
The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.Haldir in The Fellowship of the Ring, Lothlórien
Tolkien saw pain and darkness, but also the happy end of pain and the coming of light. Living in the world we live in, during these dark times and the many more to come, we must not be daunted by the darkness, but see past it, and even fight against it.
On first read, I found the prologue to be quite unnecessary, boring for all the reasons that modern advice on writing seeks to avoid. Infodumping, non-imperative prologues just for the hell of it, so much telling and so little showing.
I understand why many contemporary readers get half way into the prologue and mutter something along the lines of, “well the movies we’re good at least.” Many who love the fantasy genre are quite turned off of the one of the genre’s seminal works. And that’s ok so for many reasons.
Honestly, on second read, I’m not much more interested in the prologue than I was on the first read. Though I do think I appreciate a bit more what Tolkien was attempting.
Tolkien, though not inventing a genre, was defining one. The modern prologue that we are used to today is quite different from the the one that Tolkien gives us in The Lord of the Rings. Contemporary authors typically use the prologue to set a story’s tone and give the reader some crypic insight into what is going to happen by the time we reach the climax.
Tolkien, in one sense, was doing this too. In the section titled Concerning Hobbits, Tolkien is framing a story where the small and unimportant will defy their stature and provoke worldwide change by reluctantly partaking in the journey set out for them.
But Tolkien is also doing something that at first unnerved me and only later intrigued me. He seems to be hiding behind an added layer of history. And this of course is because Tolkien was positing a world that is a precursor to our own very real world.
It was not until reaching the appendices at the end of “Return of the King” that I realized that The Lord of the Rings is a faux translation from Westron (The common speech of Middle Earth). I won’t bore anyone with the details here.
My only point here is that when I realized that Tolkien was in a sense distancing himself as the author of his own work, on the one hand it’s author and on the other it’s faithful translator, I fell in love with The Lord of the Rings in a new way.
I can’t explain why. Only that it happened.
The Prologue to The Lord of the Rings, isn’t necessary. By skipping you, you’ll miss almost nothing that you won’t get by diving into the story, especially if you are already familiar with it’s prequel, “The Hobbit.”
But what you will miss is a bit of Tolkien himself, the professor, the philologist, the historian, the translator, the lover of words and lore and context. And for that reason I’m thankful it’s there.