Reading “The Lord of the Rings:” “Prologue”

It’s that time of year again, Tolkien Appreciation Month! This year, I’ve decided to post periodically as I make my way through my annual reading of Tolkien’s masterpiece.  I can’t guarantee that I’ll post on every chapter (and I will still be posting other stuff, such as film reviews and whatnot), but there will definitely be several posts on The Lord of the Rings.

To inaugurate this year’s Tolkien Appreciation Month, I wanted to talk about the Prologue.  This has, perhaps somewhat strangely, always been one of my favourite parts of the novel.  It retains just a bit of the playful tone so notable in The Hobbit, while also gesturing toward the larger scale that always hovers outside the frame.  We learn, for example, that Celeborn went to Rivendell to spend his remaining time in Middle-earth, and that with him resided much of the lore of the Elder Days that might have otherwise been lost.  While we don’t know when he at last departed from the Grey Havens, the fact that the novel mentions it at all evokes that profound sadness that will remain a key part of The Lord of the Rings as a whole.

What always strikes me when I read this prologue is the extent to which it displays all of the things that make LotR as a whole such an immense pleasure to read.   It’s more than just providing a sense of a fully-realized world (though that is certainly part of it).  It’s also that our access to this world, if we buy into the fiction, is filtered through texts.  The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, we learn, are in reality part of the larger Red Book of Westmarch.  What’s more, we learn that the original was not even preserved, and that the account we are about to read, indeed the one we are reading at that very moment, are already filtered through many layers of interpretation from subsequent generations.  Even at this early stage, one can sense Tolkien’s philologist glee in constructing this world from scratch, right down to the texts.

What is perhaps most compelling, however, is what this part of the book doesn’t tell us.  It alludes to the Authorities, for example, who apparently have some ability to adjudicate whether Gollum should have fulfilled his promise to Bilbo and showed him out of the cave.  We don’t learn any more about these Authorities, however.  Who are they?  Were they akin to the Wise?  In what historic moment were they located?  The novel refuses to answer these questions.  Nor do we learn much more about the scribe in Gondor who made some additions and corrections to the Red Book.  This is one of the few glimpses we get of the world of the Fourth Age, and it is so tantalizing and compelling precisely because it is so tiny.

One tiny note.  I was struck upon this reading by the note that the hobbits were divided into different “breeds.”  This seems like a rather odd choice, given that this opening section goes out of its way to point out that hobbits are more closely related to humans than to the other races of Middle-earth.  Further, given that Tolkien, perhaps more than any other author, was notorious for his attention to detail in language, we can’t avoid the fact that this is no doubt deliberate.  What it means, however, still manages to elude me.

There’s something to be said for savouring this early part of the novel, as it contains a glimmer of the immense depth, richness, and texture that have long stood as the hallmarks of Tolkien’s mythic writing.  It is perhaps tempting to rush right through it to get to the “good stuff,” but I would exhort even experienced Tolkien readers to take another look at this opening section.  You might be surprised at the new things you’ll uncover.

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