In contemporary fantasy and science fiction writing, it is ubiquitous to employ literary techniques that enable authors to weave webs of mystery and intrigue that are only unravelled and explained through the course of their stories. Examples include beginning tales in media res, depicting magic powers and special abilities that are only understood through further reading and exposure to their intricacies, and even utilizing completely separate storylines that only intersect and complement each other after much of the story is complete. In a recent TED talk, JJ Abrams, a revered director and producer of many beloved films and TV shows, explained his love for the unseen and his passion for stories that leave elements of their worlds up to the imagination and to the progression of the story. The narratives he portrays on screen often reflect this concept. (Honestly, can anyone make sense of the end of the LOST series?) Tolkien’s early chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring, however, directly contradict what Abrams elucidates as the goal of a successful storyteller. Tolkien instead begins by extensively explaining the customs, cultures and relationships of many of the races and individuals in his novel, leaving little to mystery. We are left to wonder, why did Tolkien shape the inception of Frodo and his companions’ adventure as he did? And what effect did this have on “world building” and the narrative as a whole?
In many ways, The Fellowship of the Ring was the first book of its kind in terms of creating a fantastical world in the form of Middle Earth. Not even Tolkien’s previous fantasy novel, The Hobbit, contained the depth of exhaustive detail found within its sequel. The tone used by Tolkien in the prologue and early chapters of The Fellowship serves to slowly immerse the reader into his world and grants the story the aura of actual history. Hobbits don’t differ significantly from humans (except for their feet and small stature). The parallels with real humans are important in terms of the shared doubt of the degree of danger and magic outside the Shire, and in relating to the book’s protagonist. In that vein, Tolkien’s goal in the early chapters of The Fellowship is to establish The Shire as a sort of safe, provincial environment that provides a nursery for both Frodo’s characterization as well as the reader’s foray into Middle Earth. Eventually, both Frodo and the reader grow tired of the hobbits and the smothering shelter of The Shire, especially as danger approaches. It’s only at this point that Tolkien allows the narrative to progress, and Frodo to move forward with Gandalf’s instructions. By then he has created a link between Frodo and the reader as well as explained as much as possible without the characters even having set foot outside of the Shire. Tolkien also employs songs, and the expansive knowledge of Gandalf to add further context for a gripping, enticing and incredibly detailed world. The contrast between the Shire (as well as the relative safety of discussing magic and monsters through the confines of song ) and the dangerous road is imperative to the conflict and tension building in the narrative. However, even on the road, Tolkien does not resort to mystery. There is a clear distinction between good (the hobbits) and evil (the riders and the enemy). Also, the symbolism is obvious and the hobbits have a clear goal (to reach Bree). Rather than harming the narrative, as some would suggest, this allows the reader to more closely analyze more pressing questions, such as why the ring corrupts, where the dwarves have gone, and why the elves are leaving Middle Earth, and, therefore, become more greatly immersed in the world as a whole.
Tolkien’s tone, as well as his intended themes are also overt. He strives to evoke certain emotions in order to steer his narrative and contribute to world building. In these early chapters, he creates a tone of elegy and lament for a lost past with the introduction of Tom Bombadil and his reluctance to fight Sauron, the departing elves, and the rise of evil. Tolkien also introduces the idea of the corrupting influence of power through the one ring and makes allusions to Christianity through references to temptation, and the selflessness and purity of the hobbits and their motivations. This type of storytelling is entirely intentional and serves to steer the narrative in a direction that is distinct from most modern writing. Tolkien’s goals are to immerse the reader, evoke a tone of regret and longing for a distant past, and connect the reader to the protagonist. He also strives to force the reader to make connections and ask questions beyond attempts to decipher what could have been a complicated and overly stimulating world if Tolkien had employed a more modern concept of storytelling.