Introducing Reading Middle-earth
A Reader's Guide to The Lord of the Rings
Few works of art have been as formative in my life as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The fantasy epic is preceded and surrounded by The Hobbit, The Silmarillion and a vast collection of created myths, tales, and histories referred to as the legendarium.
This year I’m going to read The Lord of the Rings and blog through it chapter by chapter. At least that’s the quest I’ve endeavoured to undertake, though if and when I’ll make it there and back again remains to be seen. The idea came to me unlooked for when I decided to pick up the books again to find rest in a scattered schedule of teaching and writing. My wife, in her wisdom, suggested that I write about something I love and so this light and delightful burden fell to me; and I am quite happy to carry it.
My hope for this series is twofold:
- That readers might come to love the story as I do; and
- That readers might learn to see how stories can offer us a fuller vision of our own quests, burdens, and even our delights.
The beginning seems as good a place as any to begin. Let’s talk about hobbits.
Prologue: Concerning Hobbits
The prologue to the first volume of The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring(1955), teaches eager readers more about hobbits, which they were first introduced to in The Hobbit in 1937. I’m sure many people thought 18 years was far to long a time to wait for information about such excellent and (more or less) admirable creatures.
The great work of sub-creation undertaken by Tolkien allows this prologue to read as literal history. He is able to make references to events, discrepancies, and stories both before and after the tale itself. It’s a slice of life that never happened; yet it still exists here for us to enjoy.
Tolkien connects The Hobbit to the wider story of Middle-earth by subordinating his faerie tale within the legendarium as Bilbo’s telling of his own adventure entitled ‘There and Back Again.’ This practice of placing stories within stories will come up again, and it’s one of the things I love most about Tolkien’s work.
He also highlights the “strange luck” which led to Bilbo’s role in the greater tale of the War of the Ring, setting up a benevolent but inscrutable providence over the story. This strange luck is important for considering the deep moral underpinnings of The Lord of the Rings, but that’s something I’ll come back to later on.
“[Hobbits] were, perhaps, so unwearyingly fond of good things not least because they could, when put to it, do without them.”
I really like this quote. It gets at something within the character of hobbits, all hobbits mind you, not just the heroes, that I believe Tolkien wants us to see in ourselves. At least it’s something we ought to see in ourselves, though this isn’t always the case. After pages of describing hobbits as people who eat, sleep, and sit under trees, Tolkien hints at the resilience to be found in hobbits; and it is in their deep and abiding love of the simple and the good.
Reading Middle-earth Volume 1 is now book! Get it here.