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The Great LOTR Re-Read: The Prologue

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

by Alan Lee; taken from theonering.com

I’ve decided to reread The Lord of the Rings, and I thought it might be fun to blog about it. Aside from passages I was writing fanfic about, I don’t think I’ve read the book in five years, which is amazing given the amount of time I spend thinking about it. In case there’s anyone who’s not read the books, I won’t be holding back from spoilers or even warning from them, unless that would be helpful. But I’m not going to go out of my way to spoil all the surprises, either.

Lord of the Rings opens with several letters and statements from people involved with the books, including JRRT himself. That introduction is a hoot and a half for anyone who’s a fan of a dry British wit. It also includes some interesting insights into Tolkien’s mind, most famously the discussion of whether LOTR is an allegory. But somehow that introduction is so memorable I almost didn’t need to read it.

The Prologue is something else entirely. In Tolkien’s introduction he writes directly to the reader in the voice of an author. He talks about how the writing process dovetails with world events, for example. In the Prologue, on the other hand, he takes on the voice of a historian, a curator. He speaks of certain historical texts, like the Red Book and the Tales of Aragorn and Arwen and even Merry’s treatise on pipeweed and hobbit words, and how they were written and amended, what sources the different authors had to work with. The Prologue itself is very clearly Tolkien’s own words, addressed to his readers, but it’s thoroughly steeped in this fantasy that he’s talking about things written by his characters.

I seem to have a thing for this kind of textual history. Many of my favorite books – The Handmaid’s Tale, The Outsiders, and most recently The Hunger Games, to take a few examples – all have a meta element where we see some character starting to write the very book we’re currently reading. It’s fun and helps me situate where the story is coming from, what information I may not have. Somehow it helps me immerse myself more fully in the world and crawl around in the story a little bit, before I ever start writing fanfic (if I do). And Tolkien’s prologue takes the cake for the most detail. Not only do we have passing references to who is writing the book but we are flagged to points where editors weren’t willing to edit, where details were incomplete or flat-out wrong, how different versions (meaning the first and second edition printings of The Hobbit) might not completely agree. I love it.

(Also, I now need to write a fic about Barahir taking on Findegil as an apprentice, maybe about whether Findegil is liberated or more limited in his ability to write the Tale of Aragorn + Arwen because he’s not from a political family. Dang nab it.)

In Tolkien’s writings, this sense that we are getting an incomplete story is particularly important because the story we get isn’t the modern novel so many of us are used to reading. Specifically, you don’t get the character development, the growth. With very few exceptions, Tolkien’s characters are static and it’s the situations that force them to show their true colors. On its own, the whole thing can seem a little moralistic. Inspiring as all get-out, and beautiful, but not really the kind of characters I’d want to have round to tea, particularly once we get past Rivendell.

It helps to remember that these characters we’re seeing are the details a history chose to record. History doesn’t tell the whole story and might be affected by political (or, for that matter, personal) concerns. And sometimes our authors simply don’t understand the dynamics at work. One of my own personal favorite characters is Denethor, and so much of what we see of him comes through Pippin’s eyes. Pippin is a hobbit and his interaction with Beregond over the whole ernil i pheriannath thing shows he’s much less hung up on protocol than a Gondorian would be. I can easily see him thinking Denethor is harsh and distant simply because he’s not well acclimated to the culture, and so the Denethor we see at the page becomes one man’s imperfect observations of him, retold to other people (Frodo + Sam) who never met him and who only ever heard of him as the harsh ruler who would have put them to death in The Two Towers, and again as the man who nearly immolated his son. Imagining that this is simply one take on his story opens up real possibilities, both in my fanfic but even more generally as a reader.

This time through, it was the historical angle that stuck out at me. Just how much detail JRRT puts into developing the ambiguities of the record we have, and just what a geeky thrill it was (speaking as a medievalist reading another medievalist’s attempts to build up the world of the archives) to geek out over all those details.

The Prologue also provides a nice gloss of hobbit culture. We learn something of their history but also the different clans, their government, their living habits and characters. The information wasn’t new, but I still found the tidbits charming in the way they were presented and in the details. I want to know more about the hobbits sent to Fornost, or whether being one of the shirriffs who beat the bounds was an entirely respectable job. I also, truth be told, really wanted a similar ethnography on the peoples of Middle-earth I’m most interested, like the Gondorians. It’s quite a fun read, and has a lot of that underdeveloped humor you see in Tolkien’s introduction.

Now it’s time to gather around the party-tree, because someone’s about to turn eleventy-one. Onward!

Comments

( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
lin4gondor
Jun. 2nd, 2013 12:22 pm (UTC)
I'm embarrassed to say that it's been even longer since I read LotR all the way through, when prior to the films I used to read it through once a year! Time to read it again properly, too, I'd say.

I remember reading the Prologue early on when I was younger and Tolkien's comments about the editions not agreeing made me do research into what he was talking about, and that's when I realized there was a version of the Hobbit out there that was different, and here he was trying to make that difference fit into the tale and actually work with it! What a brilliant man!

I love your observation that a lot of what we see of Denethor is through Pippin's eyes, and that definitely limits what we know of him. I think I knew this on a certain level already, but your observation of it really hit home and made me say, "wow!" The same might be true for other characters, too, where much of what we see of them is through the eyes of the hobbits. The possibilities for fic are endless! :-D It will also be interesting to reread the series with this in mind!
marta_bee
Jun. 2nd, 2013 09:21 pm (UTC)
I love your observation that a lot of what we see of Denethor is through Pippin's eyes

Thanks! I've always found it fun to play with this idea of the books-as-imperfect-histories, but I'd forgotten just how satisfying that idea is because it lets me crawl around in the world a bit more. I'm glad you liked it. And I am with you - the fact that JRRT is so drawn to make the versions fit together definitely makes me respect his brilliance that much the more.
dreamflower02
Jun. 2nd, 2013 01:13 pm (UTC)
What fun!

My last re-read was during "Mark Reads", so not that long ago. I've lost count of my re-reads years ago, but like you in recent years most of it's been in segments as research for fic or looking for specific passages.

I ADORE the Prologue. It's the Shire! It's Hobbits! Between the Prologue, a few things in the Appendices, and Letter #214, it's all we hobbit-centric fans have to go by to build up our vision of the Shire and its people.

I look forward to your observations; I always find something new to me EVERY single time I read the books--I bet you do too.
marta_bee
Jun. 2nd, 2013 09:26 pm (UTC)
I can only imagine how much fun the Prologue is for hobbit-lovers. I love individual hobbits, especially Bilbo, but the whole world never really "sang" for me. And even I love the Prologue. I'm glad this look back worked for you.

And I do find something new every time I read, you're right. This is kind of like getting to know an old friend all over again.
fliewatuet
Jun. 2nd, 2013 08:05 pm (UTC)
Re-reading LotR sounds like a good idea :-D

Thanks for the reminder

*goes off in search of her copy of FotR*
marta_bee
Jun. 2nd, 2013 09:33 pm (UTC)
Great! I'm glad I inspired you to re-read.
periantari
Jul. 21st, 2016 01:45 am (UTC)
One of my own personal favorite characters is Denethor, and so much of what we see of him comes through Pippin’s eyes. Pippin is a hobbit and his interaction with Beregond over the whole ernil i pheriannath thing shows he’s much less hung up on protocol than a Gondorian would be. I can easily see him thinking Denethor is harsh and distant simply because he’s not well acclimated to the culture,
I really like this point you made about culture and the point of view a character looks upon. I agree whole-heartedly and can't say it better!
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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