THE PLOT: ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ is the first volume of the six-part novel ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Frodo Baggins must undertake a quest across Middle Earth to destroy the ruling ring of power. This first volume of the novel chronicles the start of Frodo’s journey and how he is joined by eight companions – the fellowship of the ring. I wasn’t sure whether to review each volume of the Lord of the Rings separately because I feared I would be repetitive. However, I have so many thoughts – some of which are potentially controversial – so please bear with me.
RATING: In this essay I will put forth that Tolkein is not a great novelist. He is a fantastic world-builder but his dialogue and character development need work and there is too much back-story (that is not relevant to the plot) on the page. This takes up space that could have been used for character development, expressed through more interiority for Frodo and snappier dialogue for all. Although some sections are very successful and have all the hallmarks of a great novel, and the bones of the plot are exceptional, the book needs another edit as – at times – it reads as if Tolkein is working out the world-building for himself and not writing a novel for a reader.
Having now read the first volume of the novel, I admire the Peter Jackson films even more and forgive The Rings of Power TV show. I view the novel as source material; a jumping off point for other creative interpretations, and think if Tolkein were writing now this work might have been expressed in another artistic form (VR/gaming) rather than a novel. Due to my own biases, I can only view this book in opposition to the film and modern story-telling techniques but I hope you can follow my argument.
GOOD BITS: It cannot be denied that the bones of the plot are exceptional. The mounting tension as Frodo leaves the shire and journeys through Buckland with the Ring Wraiths on his heels keeps the reader glued to the page. In particular, I liked that Merry and Pippin deliberately planned to go with Frodo from the start (this subverted reader expectation as it was a surprise to Frodo), the Fatty Bolger diversion and Farmer Maggot. The innkeeper at Bree and Gandalf’s missing letter is also a great plot point that adds tension. Although my interest waned when the hobbits reached Rivendell, after the fellowship is formed the escalating dangers mirror each of Frodo’s companions (Moria for the dwarves, Lothlorein for the elves) and the challenges symbolize the flaws of each race in a way that ties together the themes with the plot elegantly.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: I realized that Tolkein was not a good novelist during The Council of Rivendell and I will use that example, contrasted against the film, to illustrate my criticisms.
Firstly, in the film, Frodo believes he will only have to take the ring as far as Rivendell. He never truly thinks he will need to go into Mordor. Therefore, when the council argue and Frodo interrupts to say he will bear the ring all the way to its destruction, it is way more powerful and makes Frodo more of a hero. I dislike the book-Frodo for many reasons (he reads like a petty middle-aged white man) but his extreme reluctance to his duty is a huge missed opportunity for empathy with our protagonist. (In Tolkein’s defense, I do think this was rectified at the breaking of the fellowship which demonstrated good character development for Frodo).
Secondly, Frodo spends two months at Rivendell which feels too long. Ostensibly this is to ensure the Ring Wraiths have gone, but it breaks tension and only realistically would give the Enemy more time to regroup. Thirdly, the dialogue at the council is extremely long and tedious (it is monologue in disguise).
Additional criticisms unrelated to the council. Unless Tom Bombadill plays an active part in the story in the successive volumes, I don’t see why his inclusion was necessary. And there were too many songs, most of which don’t include useful backstory. The editor should have limited Tolkein to five songs maximum.
OVERALL: Due to its place in the literary canon, I have been somewhat harsh on this novel as I wanted to truly reflect on why it is so beloved and esteemed. Don’t get me wrong, the mind that created this book is brilliant and the plot structure and character outlines are masterful. I have been harsh on the dialogue, but Gandalf, Bilbo and Sam have some good lines and it’s not all bad. However, I believe there is a reason Tolkein’s world-building endures but we don’t revere his wider literary canon. I just don’t think he’s great at writing novels.