Well, I did it. I finally did it. I finished Fellowship of the Ring. I had tried a few other times in my life and just couldn’t do it. But with some Amazon TV-show inspiration, an adult appreciation for slower narratives, and the help of Andy Serkis’ incredible narration, I did it!
And I really loved this book, especially once I slowed down and accepted it on its own terms. I still think Tolkien could have tightened this narrative quite a bit (many first-time readers have crashed on the rocks of its long travel sections or Tom Bombadil–still a baffling character to me). But Tolkien makes it all worth it in the end and makes me excited for more.
I came with minimal Tolkien or fantasy experience. I read and enjoyed “The Hobbit” as a middle-schooler, and I watched its creepy 1970s cartoon version a bunch. I’ve watched the theatrical versions of the movies once or twice, but mostly forgot them. I grew up hearing bad “Lord of the Rings” sermon illustrations. So if you are like me, what should you know about the book?
First, before we really get into it, this truly is a sequel to “The Hobbit”. I had forgotten some of the specifics of that book, but “Fellowship” begins with a prologue that summarizes all of it, spoilers and all; so if you ever plan on reading “The Hobbit”, do that first. This book flows directly from that one.
Reflection on the Slow Pacing
Second, as you may know from just general cultural osmosis, this is more a travel book than an adventure tale. The characters travel many miles for many days on the journey in these pages, and nearly every day and region is described here. This creates a weird pacing to the book. Lots of slow, meandering days, full of beautiful descriptions of landscapes and geography accompanied by little bits and hints of lore and history. Tolkien really is a beautiful writer–not just a profound thinker.
And then there are the action scenes. Some are striking and suck you in. Others are confusing, leaving with an impression of what happened but not the clearest mental picture (for example, what on earth happens in the barrow-downs?). The action is also spaced out amidst sporadically without much rhyme or reason. At times they make sense; at others they feel a little arbitrary, as if an editor had told Tolkien, “they’ve been walking and talking too long. Throw in some inconsequential peril to liven things up.”
On one hand, this adds suspense as the stakes rise and you never know what’s going to happen and when. On the other, this all deeply challenges us modern readers. We are used to information dumps or action-filled narratives that fit particular rhythms and templates for such things.
But Fellowship is different. Even in all its fantasy, it’s much closer to real life than modern books. Most of life is boring. It’s moving from place to place or having conversations that serve no immediate purpose or “plot”. The most perilous things we encounter are often unpredictable, random, and seemingly disconnected from our “real” life.
For example, if you’ve seen the movies, you know the whole point of all this travel is to take The Ring to Mount Doom to destroy it. And yet, this entire book goes by without them coming to that conclusion! When they start walking, they just know that some bad people want the ring, so they flee. They are literally aimless. Even by the end, they still have no idea where they should go or what they should do! They get up each morning, ask “okay, what now?”, head in a direction, and respond to things that happen along the way.
It’s fascinating to experience a book like this. It forces you to slow down, settle in, and receive the book on its own terms. Even as the mystery deepens and you want answers, you’re forced to wait. Apparently, the next two books are much faster-paced, but I wonder if having been made to sit and pace yourself makes those books all the more beautiful and exciting.
But that’s all about the plot and pacing. But as someone completely unfamiliar with “high-fantasy”, what did I think about the world-building and lore?
Musings of a Fantasy Noob
I am in awe of what Tolkien has accomplished here. This is truly a fully-fleshed out alternative world at every level. Its history, cultures, languages, geography, and mythology are completely realized in Tolkien’s brain in a way similar to a god creating a world in its totality out of nothing. It’s astonishing. This world is not built off of a single clever conceit or proposal or small twist added to our world. It is wholly other and unique.
It does not feel nearly as nerdy or inaccessible as I expected. In the book it all unfolds much like real human conversation. People with their own histories and stories travel together and as different things remind them of songs or tales, they mention it to the rest of the group (and us). Then the narrative moves forward.
There are very few grand speeches or exposition dumps. You can tell there is (literally) a whole world of lore and knowledge behind this story that is only given to us in carefully portioned out doses. It really draws you in and makes you curious for more. “Fellowship” is an excellent fantasy gateway drug.
Get. This. Audiobook.
One key to my reading success was that I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Andy Serkis. And it is amazing. I listened to some of every audio version available–even a well-regarded fan-produced one that incorporates music and sound effects from the movies–and Serkis’ was by far the best. It will be the new standard for a very long time.
Serkis, who played Gollum in the movies, provides voices, acting, emotion, and singing (so much singing) that really keeps you enthralled. Save for a few characters, his voices tend follow the movie accents pretty closely. (One funny feature of Fellowship in this regard is that Gollum never has a speaking part, so I haven’t yet heard if Serkis does the same voice!)
He is dynamic, and truly performs the book in a way that is moving, but not distracting, and still maintains integrity to the text. He takes you on a ride. His voice can be soft and trembling (like when Frodo realizes he needs to the leave the Shire), and screaming to the point of his voice cracking in others (Gandalf’s epic “You shall not pass!” He kills that scene. Dang). I cried multiple times reading the book, was actually scared in others, and deeply shaken elsewhere. It’s that good.
This has been a long review. I mean, it’s Lord of the Rings: there’s both so much to say, and also nothing really needs to be said. It saturates our world and culture. But still, reading it for the first time makes you realize just how much you really don’t get it if you’ve only seen the movies.
This is not cheesy, nerdy, socially-awkward (or even escapist) fantasy work. This is truly literature that shows you the best and worst of the world, challenging your intellect and moral reasoning, drawing you into something higher. And it does it all with sophistication, beauty, complexity, and humanity.
As long as you accept the book on its own terms and settle in for a long read, you will get through it. And you will love it. I can’t wait to finish the whole series, and then read these books to my kids someday.
As Tolkien’s bff once said: “onward and upward!”