The Fellowship of the Ring
by J. R. R. Tolkien
Chapter 1: A Long-Expected Party
Pg.41-45: “‘But my lad Sam will know more about that. He’s in and out of Bag End. Crazy about stories of the old days he is, and he listens to all of Mr. Bilbo’s tales'” (44).
He does everything wrong as a writer – he introduces characters that are not major characters, he shows and tells, his description is sparse, and he uses “being” verbs. And yet…it works.
For one, he does introduced three vital characters: Frodo and Bilbo Baggins and, to a lesser extent, Samwise Gamgee. What’s striking to me is that he introduces them and explains them through dialogue. And it’s dialogue that tells a lot about hobbits and their history and how they think.
Namely, that they’re very focused on themselves and their own lives. The world at large doesn’t concern them. But the history of the peculiar Bilbo Baggins is definitely worth talking about. Not because any of the characters say so, but because that is literally what they’re talking about.
We learn that hobbits like family history. Which their dialogue makes clear through their questions and the flow of the conversation, but Tolkien adds that “hobbits have a passion for family history, and they were ready to hear it again” (43). It’s fascinating that he just tells the reader that, even as the action ensures it’s confirmed.
What’s also striking is how little description is included. At least in the conventional sense I’ve always thought of it. For example, I couldn’t quite say what The Ivy Bush looks like other than its “a small inn on the Bywater road” nor what Gaffer or Sandyman or Daddy Twofoot look like, other than generic hobbit (42). But I definitely have a sense of place.
And what’s most compelling is that these first two scenes import a fair amount of backstory – the hobbits view on Bilbo and his adventure, Frodo’s parents and how he came to live in Bag End, and that Sam is on friendly terms with the Bagginses, like his father Gaffer.
We also learn that Sam loves old stories and is allegedly more knowledgable about Bilbo’s actual history. This shows that he’s predisposed toward the idea of adventure and ancient peril and yet retains a distance from it because it’s old stories – they happened long ago and while fascinating are not what his life is about. I wonder if this distance helps him with the Ring and all the business Frodo later.
The first scenes in a story are vital and Tolkien provides mostly dialogue and backstory. And yet somehow the story works. I want to know what happens. I want to see what Bilbo’s birthday is like. What makes it work is that it feels situated; something is happening and its stirring up local gossip and I want to know if Bilbo and Frodo’s birthday is going to be as grand as everything thinks. But what’s really great is that what’s compelling to the characters thus far (Bilbo and his birthday) is not exactly the hook of the opening problem.
Every story, as I’ve learned, needs to have something happening. There needs to be a problem, something that is not quite right in the character’s life to incite a desire for change (whether they welcome the changes is another point). Although Bilbo hasn’t officially appeared, the introductory paragraph tells us that unusual about Bilbo: “At ninety he was much the same as at fifth. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved; but unchanged would have been nearer to the mark” (41). Bilbo’s aging is deem remarkable and no one can put their finger on how or why. Which sets up the reasons for the dialogue about Bilbo and Frodo and their history, which additional provides backstory and worldbuilding.
I’ve only read four pages and I’ve already said so much. Geez. I see how this story ignited a genre.
Pg. 45-52: Bilbo’s party
What makes these pages work so well is the gentle worldbuilding – dwarf toys from Dale (whoever that is; well, I know, but pretend I don’t) which the hobbit don’t know about. Also the fact that Bilbo is planning something but we don’t know what it is. It I cures you to keep reading, to find out what it is. Additionally, there is allusions that Gandalg is not wha pt he seems, or at least there’s more going on a more serious something stirring than the trouble of the party indicate. There’s a sense that little seeds of bigger problems or events are growing underneath the hobbits daily life.
Also Bilbo’s hysterical.
Frodo is introduced.
Aw, heck, I just want to quote it lots: fireworks levy on imprint on me visually, and Frodo’s first character actions describes him as quiet and introverted.