“Don’t adventures ever have an end? I suppose not. Someone else always has to carry on the story.”
And here we are, carrying on the story of Bilbo Baggins that was begun in The Hobbit and is continued in The Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Frodo Baggins inherits Bilbo’s magic ring, which turns out to be an extremely powerful magical artefact sought by the Dark Lord Sauron as part of a rather nebulous Evil Plan to Take Over the World. Frodo must destroy the Ring and save Middle-earth; The Fellowship of the Ring describes the first part of his Quest with a capital Q.
I think I’ve finally worked out what I love most about The Fellowship of the Ring (and, by extension, the rest of the trilogy). Tolkien is really extremely good at creating atmosphere: the creeping, silent menace of the Barrow-wights, the happy, gossipy Shire-villages, the solemnity of the Council of Elrond are all evoked with immediacy (if not with strict realism), an immediacy probably helped along by the fact that Tolkien seems to know absolutely everything about his landscapes, and I mean everything. What exact direction does this path lead? What kind of trees grow in this country? Which way does the wind blow here? If by the end of Fellowship you haven’t got a clear picture of what Middle-earth looks like, it’s your own fault.
The first few chapters of Fellowship are also the ones I look forward to reading most out of the whole trilogy, because…well, because in a way they’re rather cheerful, much closer to the fairy-tale-ish Hobbit than to the later chapters of The Lord of the Rings. There’s the cheerful, mysterious Tom Bombadil (the only character that I genuinely wish had not been excluded from the otherwise brilliant films), and the Long-Expected Birthday Party, and a lovely insight into the workings of the Shire that is provided by the Prologue. And there’s this wonderful, desperately sad passage from Gandalf describing Gollum:
All the “great secrets” under the mountains had turned out to be just empty night: there was nothing more to find out, nothing worth doing, only nasty furtive eating and resentful remembering. He was altogether wretched. He hated the dark, and he hated light more: he hated everything, and the Ring most of all.
It may not be the most action-packed of adventure novels, making its slow, leisurely way through the various landscapes of Middle-earth as it does, but it certainly feels real, as if it might once had happened. And that, after all, was exactly the effect Tolkien was aiming for.