Book review

The Fellowship of the Ring by J R R Tolkien (1954)

Part one of the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy

Here's a book that becomes part of you for ever once you read it.

Have you read The Hobbit? Do you remember how Bilbo Baggins found a magic ring deep in the underground tunnels of the Misty Mountains? It belonged to Gollum, of course, but Gollum dropped it in the dark and Bilbo picked it up and put it in his pocket. It turned out to be quite a useful ring to Bilbo because the wearer became invisible when he put the ring on. That allowed Bilbo to outwit the dragon Smaug, and return home to Hobbiton after marvellous adventures with as much treasure as he wanted, and a great plan to live happily ever after.

At the beginning of this new book, sixty years have passed and Bilbo still doesn't look a day over fifty! Gandalf, the wizard is beginning to wonder about the nature of Bilbo's ring, but although he has some startling ideas he does not share them with Bilbo. He merely persuades Bilbo to pass the ring on to his adopted heir Frodo Baggins. Time passes, and Frodo settles into his new role of master of Bag End. In fact, he is nearing his own fiftieth birthday, when Gandalf appears suddenly in Hobbiton and performs, in secret with Frodo, one final test which he needs to make to confirm the true identity of the ring. He casts the ring into the heart of Frodo's small fire, and then fishes it out with tongs. They watch as the flowing elven script appears on the inside and outside of the ring:

'I cannot read the fiery letters', said Frodo in a quavering voice.
'No', said Gandalf, 'but I can. The letters are Elvish, of an ancient mode, but the language is that of Mordor, which I will not utter here. But this in the Common Tongue is what is said, close enough':
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
'It is only two lines of a verse long known in Elven-lore':
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.
He paused, and then said slowly in a deep voice: 'This is the Master-ring, the One Ring to rule them all. This is the One Ring that he lost many ages ago, to the great weakening of his power. He greatly desires it - but he must not get it.'
Frodo sat silent and motionless. Fear seemed to stretch out a vast hand, like a dark cloud rising in the East and looming up to engulf him. 'This ring!' he stammered. 'How on earth did it come to me?'

Gandalf can tell Frodo how the ring came to him, but what to do with it next is a much harder decision. For on the fate of this ring lies the fate of all the free peoples of Frodo's world. If Sauron, the Dark Lord, can find it and reclaim it he will gain dominion over the whole of Middle Earth, for all time.

At first, on the advice of Gandalf, Frodo decides he must leave the Shire, and take the magic ring into exile. He delays, while be braces himself for the inevitable loss of his comfortable life in the shire, and this nearly proves disastrous. When he does finally flee with three companions, Merry, Pippin and Sam, he is only just in time because the nine black riders, ringwraiths and servants of the Dark Lord, are already abroad in the Shire seeking the Ring-bearer. This is a moment when Frodo is in desperate need of help and protection, but Gandalf rode off in haste earlier in the year on a mission of his own and has failed to return.

So it is that the four hobbits arrive at the Prancing Pony Inn at Bree, with their enemies hard on their heels. They are in a desperate situation and have no idea where to go next. Who will help them, if Gandalf cannot? Even amid the hearty company in the inn, unwelcome eyes are watching them, it seems:

Suddenly Frodo noticed that a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall, was also listening intently to the hobbit-talk. He had a tall tankard in front of him, and was smoking a long-stemmed pipe curiously carved. His legs were stretched out before him, showing high boots of supple leather that fitted him well, but had seen much wear and were now caked with mud. A travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth was drawn close about him, and in spite of the heat of the room he wore a hood that overshadowed his face; but the gleam of his eyes could be seen as he watched the hobbits.
'Who is that?' Frodo asked, when he got a chance to whisper to Mr Butterbur. 'I don't think you introduced him?'
'Him?' said the landlord in an answering whisper, cocking an eye without turning his head. 'I don't rightly know. He is one of the wandering folk - Rangers we call them ...'

Well, would you take up with a Ranger? Frodo does, despite Sam's misgivings, but this Ranger is Aragorn son of Arathorn last of the race of the Kings of Numenor, and well known to Gandalf. It is only thanks to the skill and valour of Aragorn that the hobbits get as far as Rivendell, the Last Homely House east of the Sea, for they are attacked by five of the ringwraiths at Weathertop, out in the wilderness, and Frodo receives a terrible wound. He begins to fade and pass into the world of darkness ...

Rivendell is the home of Elrond Half-Elven, wise and powerful elf-lord, and he can heal Frodo. There are many meetings in the house of Elrond, some of them happy - Gandalf is there, and Bilbo - and some of them anxious. Many representatives of the free peoples of Middle Earth have assembled there by chance to seek the advice of Elrond because they all perceive the dark shadow enveloping their lands. A Council is called, at which Frodo is present, as Ring-bearer, and here the whole history of the Ring is recounted in full. It becomes clear that such is the evil power of the ring that not one of the wise and powerful lords of the free peoples will take the ring, neither to hide it, nor to wield it against Sauron for the power of good. The ring is too wholly evil and would betray them.

Reluctantly, Frodo faces up to what he must do. There is only one way to rid Middle Earth of the ring, and that is to cast it back into the fires of Mount Doom where it was originally wrought:

'I will take the Ring,' he said, 'though I do not know the way.'
Elrond raised his eyes and looked at him, and Frodo felt his heart pierced by the sudden keenness of the glance. 'If I understand aright all that I have heard,' he said, 'I think that this task is appointed for you, Frodo; and that if you do not find a way, no one will. This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great. Who of all the Wise could have foreseen it? Or, if they are wise, why should they expect to know it, until the hour has struck?

This is an utterly desperate enterprise. A Fellowship of Nine Walkers, representing all the free peoples, set out with Frodo to accompany him as far along the road to Mordor as they choose. They represent men, elves, dwarves, hobbits and Gandalf the wizard.

And now, if you want to know how they fare on that terrible journey, you will have to read the book. I promise you, you will be spellbound.

What can I read next?

This book is the first of a trilogy which is known as The Lord of the Rings. The three books are separately entitled:

Of course, if you haven't already read it, you might be interested to have a look at The Hobbit. Although it was written in a simpler style for younger readers, it presents many of the important characters and events for the later trilogy:

There is nothing else quite like The Lord of the Rings. It is the fantasy which set the standard for all other fantasies written this century - and last century!

You might like to have a look at the Earthsea sequence by Ursula Le Guin which portrays some fairly serious wizardry:

There is a new fantasy trilogy, in a historical setting, which might interest you, written by Kevin Crossley-Holland:

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