The Fellowship of the Ring is what happened when Tolkien wanted to write about more Elves but everyone else wanted more Hobbits. A Hobbit-centric tale that has tons of Elvish backstory crammed into every nook and cranny of the story. And I absolutely love it.
Bilbo is finally ready to retire, giving one massive party (AIN’T NO PARTY LIKE A HOBBIT PARTY), playing one last prank on everyone, and disappearing off into the wild. After a struggle, he manages to leave behind his Ring to Frodo. Gandalf, suspicious of the Ring…tells Frodo not to use it then nopes off for years. Yeah, nearly twenty years pass before Gandalf finally shows back up to give Frodo all the backstory on Sauron…and then everyone still waits around for months before heading off just as Ringwraiths show up. Even Bilbo thinks it was a rather silly scheme.
But despite this, it does the job in making the book exciting. Tolkien is a master at creating escalating conflicts and obstacles for his characters. He first pits them against the old Forest, which is unconnected to the main conflict but still starts building their endurance and their wisdom. Then he brings in the Ringwraiths to the forefront, and later on brings in the Balrog. Someone else (I can’t recall the name) noted that Tolkien has this seesaw plot where they go through a period of fear, then have a period of rest, and you can see this through all three books.
One thing I really noticed this time around, and it’s probably because it was a focus of my senior thesis in college, was the theme of nature as both beautiful and dangerous. While some people think of Tolkien as an old hippie, he was really just a bit of a reactionary. Despite having been a literal tree-hugger, he was also fully aware that nature was not all sunshine and roses. Nature is a force to be respected, not controlled. His reaction against technology was because technology was too often used to control nature rather than mitigate the effects of nature. Everyone complains about Tom Bombadil, but he is a good statement on this concept. He doesn’t rule over nature; he is merely the steward of the little plot of forest where he lives. This lack of ruling or controlling is why the Ring doesn’t affect him.
Another example is Caradhras, which is just another malevolent aspect of nature rather than a tool of the enemy. While it could be noted that everything seemed to unite to drive them into Moria, where they would encounter the Balrog, it’s never stated what force it is that is doing this. It could just as easily be the will of Iluvatar, preparing the way for Gandalf to become Gandalf the White. (And yes, Gandalf absolutely should have come back, that is how this world works, MARTIN, try understanding the actual backstory and world-building.)
Perhaps because it’s October and everyone is gearing up for Halloween and talking about spooky things, but I noted how well Tolkien could write creepy passages. The Ringwraiths still give me a shiver, and this time, the descriptions of Gollum were rather creepy to me too.
Some people have described this as rather slow, and it is, compared to other fantasy. Then again, a lot of popular fantasy is about the epic battles. Tolkien, while he writes great epic battles, was not writing to glorify war. The entire point of the books is that war has its place and purpose, but it is not what will ultimately defeat evil. In this universe, if you’ve read all of the backstory, you will know that Morgoth essentially turned the world itself into his “Ring”; he poured much of his will and malice into the shaping of the world through his discordant song. Literally the only thing that will ultimately defeat evil is the unmaking and remaking of the world, which will only happen after Arda’s Ragnarok, where the Valar, the Maiar, and the great heroes stop Morgoth and Sauron for good.
Galadriel refers to them “fighting the long defeat”, which is another Norse concept that has found its way into the book. Galadriel knows she has only been holding out against the inevitable ending of their world. She came to Middle Earth to rule as a queen, but finds she must let her world, and her rule, end, in order to create a better world. She must give up her own ambitions and submit to the will of Iluvatar at last, and this she does.
Even in this book you get that bittersweet feeling of beautiful things ending. We know that Aragorn and Frodo do not return to Lothlorien; we also know that as Galadriel disappears from view on the river, she is diminishing even then, already fading into the past that will never come again.
You know, the prologue of the movie didn’t give me chills the way it usually does. Possibly because I know the story like the back of my hand, so it’s old hat. But also, I sort of question the prologue? I mean, the book had a prologue…about Hobbits. The rest of the backstory, while it definitely was given in an infodump, was given as part of an infodump to Frodo, rather than to the reader. So I guess this time around I felt like this all would have made better sense had Gandalf given Frodo a cliff notes version of it all, and we got the rest of it from Elrond later on at the council.
I also forgot how they did the timing in this as well. Gandalf comes back, sends Frodo off immediately to Bree because he’s pretty sure the Ringwraiths are already out and about, and then rides toward Isengard, which doesn’t make sense because they’re in the same direction. If it was that urgent, then it would make better sense for Gandalf to get Frodo safely to Rivendell then go see Saruman. In the books, of course, Gandalf didn’t think it was urgent to be off immediately–which is why Frodo takes his sweet time leaving the Shire.
Of course, these are all quibbles. The fact is, this movie captures the spirit of the books very well. You still get the sense that this is really only part of a much larger story; you still have a sense of both wonder and fear. I didn’t even complain about a lack of Glorfindel this time! As much as I am a member of the Glorfindel fan club, it makes sense they would use Arwen, a character that is more relevant to the tale, in his part.
I’ve always felt the casting was amazing for these movies. Everyone really feels like they belonged to the characters they were given (especially Ian McKellan as Gandalf and Christopher Lee as Saruman–never have I so enjoyed seeing two old men try to beat each other with their walking sticks).
One thing I did like was that the movie is great at portraying Boromir’s extremely mixed motives. He wants to defend his home; he wants to gain glory. In the book, he comes to the council even though Faramir was the chief recipient of the prophetic dream. Boromir simultaneously wants to keep his brother from going on an extremely dangerous journey, but also gain glory for their home. We don’t get that part (we assume he’s just at the council to ask for help), but we do see his constant struggles. He cares for his people, and he comes to care for the Hobbits, especially Merry and Pippin. He knows he shouldn’t want to take the Ring, but he desperately does anyways. He has all the pride of his father’s line, but comes to recognize Aragorn as a good leader and accepts him as the future king. His death is actually more affecting than Gandalf’s, because you know that he is trying to redeem himself.
My only other quibble is with Aragorn’s characterization. Because modern audiences are allergic to flat character arcs, we find Aragorn is waffling on this whole “king” thing, and rather doubting his strength to fight Sauron, doubts his own morality. I know they were trying to give him a compelling character arc as well, but Aragorn was already a compelling character without him struggling with his own feelings about being king.
But, in the end, it’s an excellent movie that, like the books, gives us a glimmer of hope in the darkness.