(Updated on 07/03/15)
Having received an extremely nice hardback of Tolkien’s masterpiece as a Christmas present, and since I’m re-reading it for what must be well past the 10th time, I thought I might start another post series, sharing some thoughts about the story being told informally.
“A Long Expected Party” opens Book One, with Tolkien immediately tying The Lord of the Rings to The Hobbit, in that the opening chapter of his children’s story was called “An Unexpected Party”. Both books start in the same fashion – exploring the idyllic, serene, peaceful world of the Shire and its inhabitants before veering into what we would recognise better today as fantasy adventure territory. We’ll be going to far off places, looking at obscene vistas and contemplating fantastical constructions, but we will begin in a landscape that many of us could claim to be familiar with. Tolkien shows us paradise: a place worth saving, worth trying to get back to. It is a comfortable, relaxing lead-in to the epic story of war and clashes of civilisations that The Lord of the Rings will turn into.
But where The Hobbit saw its protagonist begin his quest in a comical fashion, late for the starting line and carrying no supplies of any worth, The Lord of the Rings rapidly goes off into a far darker story. The main purpose of this chapter, apart from re-introducing the characters of Bilbo and Gandalf, and giving us our first glimpse of Frodo (and, I suppose, briefly, Merry) is to set that tone for the book and separate The Lord of the Rings from its child orientated precursor.
We get that feeling right from the first paragraph, where we discover that Bilbo has become the source of much gossip and talk from his neighbours, due to his wealth and his apparently overly good health for a hobbit his age. The words “well-preserved” are used in a somewhat sinister fashion here, and the gossip is described as turning from good-natured to ill-felt – “It isn’t natural and trouble will come of it!”. Only old Hamfast seems to stand in defence of Bilbo’s reputation at one point, unable to convince his fellow hobbits that the resident of Bag End is not simply “queer”. It’s a basic writing tool, presenting characters in the story as reacting to something that the reader knows more about, giving us the feeling that we are more involved with what is taking place. Tolkien will get more into it in “The Shadow Of The Past“, but there is enough of it here: darkly noted “strangers” causing disquiet, bickering families and the general atmosphere at the conclusion.
If there is one thing I love about the Shire chapters, more so those at the beginning rather than the end of the book, is that though its characters are all, essentially, midgets with hairy feet, Tolkien creates a very viable and believable countryside environment. Anyone from, or who has spent time in, a rural area, will recognise the common traits here: a seemingly peaceful, easy-going populace, tightly interconnected by family and marriage with their own deeply held opinions of specific branches and nearby locations, no government of any consequence, literacy not even being all that required (Hamfast Gamgee notes that his son being “taught his letters” as an exceptional thing, though there are plenty of mentions of writing later). Magic and creatures from outside the borders are the subject of scepticism and suspicion. It is a populace who mark their lives by social gatherings and the like, and where the local pub is the usual place for discussion and debate of everything going on in the world. The Shire is an agrarian anarchy, a libertarian fantasy, where people work and seem happy with their lot, and nary a sign of any serious social problems. Tolkien will keep this up in a lot of other locations: homelessness, serious poverty or class differences will never be a large part of the make-up in places like Bree, Edoras or Minis Tirith. There will be a stratification in those societies, but it’ll be rare that it is outlined in a really negative fashion.
I’ve mentioned it already, but I’ll do it again (sort of): the gossipy scenes in the pub (more in the next chapter) are a really good representation of country life, at least from my experience (my Mother’s family being from North Clare) where family history (a term often used to disguise basic gossip) is a crucial topic, the oldest are treated as experts on nearly all things (namely Hamfast Gamgee here), rumour and intrigue are rife, and outsiders are frequently despised and ignored. Even in the text here, Tolkien writes like a bystander instead of a unattached viewer, dropping references to people and characters, like “old Holman” for example, whenever he can. Places that would be considered down the road in other parts, like Buckland, are far away here, living next to rivers is “unnatural”, actually taking a boat onto one of them is asking for trouble and “decent folk”, like those in Hobbiton, would never dream of doing so.
I really like those scenes, and also for other reasons: in the pub scene of the first chapter we get introduced to Hamfast Gamgee, the aging father of what will turn out to be one of the main characters, who is having a conversation that includes Sandyman the Miller. The two men don’t like each other and as the next chapter shows, neither do their sons. I think that was an important addition by Tolkien, backed up by some later bits with the Sackville-Bagginses: The Shire isn’t all peace and light and the hobbits don’t all get along like a house on fire (and shows that feuds and dislike continue on through generations). In fact, as the final few pages of this chapter show vividly, hobbits can demonstrate a very nasty streak, as a number of them collude in ransacking Bag End. This is important, for plot reasons that won’t become apparent until the last few chapters of the whole book. Hamfast is also great as just an introduction to the larger hobbit world in general. Bilbo was more or less the only hobbit character in The Hobbit, so it’s here that we get to see more of them, talk. And a direct connection is drawn, as the Gaffer talks about witnessing Bilbo’s return from his adventure all those years ago, evoking memories of the end of The Hobbit, and foreshadowing a similar situation in Bag End that will occur at the end of this chapter.
The main centrepiece of the chapter is Bilbo’s 111th birthday party, in which the reader is dazzled with an amazing description of a gigantic feast with many entertainments: the effect is to make Bilbo out to be as extravagant and over-the-top as possible and it’s done well, culminating in a visual recreation of The Hobbit’s “Fire And Water”, dragon and all. Gandalf returns here, and at first he remains simply the marvellous wizard of The Hobbit, entertaining children with his fireworks. While “A Long Expected Party” has its dark moments of inferred calamity approaching, Tolkien is content to let some light shine out for the majority. Gandalf is just a figure of fun and uniqueness for the people of the Shire, and I could argue that “An Unexpected Party” actually painted him in darker tones.
It’s all build-up for the big moment where Bilbo vanishes, causing a bit of a stir, a scene successful due to its sheer strangeness if nothing else: the reader, of course, knows what’s happened, but tension is created by the clever foreshadowing of something that will happen at the event (“Who will laugh I wonder?”,) the reaction of the party goers and how Frodo looks on at what occurred, knowledgeable but filled with a certain regret. And it’s at this point that The Lord of the Rings starts heading into dark territory big time.
It’s all about the Ring of course. In The Hobbit, it was just a useful tool, but now we’re going to see it as it really is: a corrupting, addictive force. I never agreed with those who thought the Ring was an allegory for nuclear power or some other weapon. In my eyes, a better comparison was always with a highly addictive drug like heroin, something that the user can’t let go of easily, and gets angry if people try to make him.
The scene where Bilbo and Gandalf talk privately in Bag End is the real beginning of our introduction to the Ring and its evil. The next chapter will flesh it out properly, but here we get everything we need to know: the Ring, and Bilbo’s possession of it, turns him from a lovable old hobbit, into an angry, suspicious, paranoid monster, who is two steps away from attacking Gandalf, like a Jack Russell terrier squaring up to a horse, not realising how big he actually is. Bilbo dubbing the Ring “my precious” is bad enough for raising the alarm bells, but along with that, Bilbo demonstrates some concerning signs of depression, regretfully describing the lavish event he just threw as less a celebration, and more as an easy avenue of giving away his possessions. At one point, during his party speech, he was revelling in the attention and enjoying it, but here, confronted by Gandalf, he has to admit the pain he is in, “…like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.”
The reader’s view of Bilbo will surely have been colored by The Hobbit. To see him act in such a profoundly “un-Bilbo” like way is a fantastic method for demonstrating just how evil the Ring can be and a sure way of making the reader realise the direction the story will be taking. The Ring has given Bilbo long life, but it’s also done something to him beyond that, something bad.
Bilbo gives up the Ring, with some help from the wizard, a nice scene demonstrating the power of friendship (as compared with the solitary Gollum who gets eaten alive by the Ring’s evil influence, bereft of anyone who could have helped him). The baton thus passes to Frodo.
Frodo begins the process of executing Bilbo’s last will and testament, which means dealing with his inquisitive neighbours. Following some fairly light-hearted stuff about Bilbo giving away items in his position and hobbits trying to discover his gold, we turn more serious with the Sackville-Bagginses turning up. Every rural community has a family like this, though Tolkien milks it with lines like “Foiled again!” and “You’ll live to regret it!”. It is all set-up for much, much later of course, but one cannot help but roll their eyes at the supervillainish way that the “SB’s” talk . Apart from being an irritant to Frodo, their conversation with the new Mr Baggins of Bag End is much more important for a short, almost throwaway line. As Frodo meets with them he is described as “fidgeting with something in his pocket”.
If you think about it, it’s actually a chilling line: Frodo has had possession of the thing for little less than a day, and it’s already influencing him, something that he turns to in a moment of stress. Even worse maybe, Gandalf informs Frodo that his neighbours are openly gossiping about how the two of them must be colluding in trying to steal all of Bilbo’s wealth, an uncomfortable thing to have to hear. A masterful sense of foreboding and dread is thus created by the author. Gandalf takes off in a hurry, which we might take as meaning that the Shire, and Frodo, seem to suddenly have been caught up in some great events that remain unexplained.
It’ll be up to the next chapter to do that. We end on a sombre and somewhat troubling paragraph: “Frodo saw him to the door. He gave a final wave of his hand, and walked off at a surprising pace; but Frodo thought the old wizard looked unusually bent, almost as if he was carrying a great weight. The evening was closing in, and his cloaked figure quickly vanished into the twilight. Frodo did not see him again for a long time.” Actually, this is a peculiarly great talent of Tolkien’s, that of crafting captivating closing lines.
On Frodo, we really don’t see much of him in this chapter. He’s little more than “Bilbo’s nephew” in terms of actual character building, though the last few pages set him up in a way where he is as quick-witted and likeable as his Uncle. The pub conversations give some local knowledge on his circumstances, particularly the deaths of his parents, the sort of tragedy that is so easily turned into a piece of salacious gossip for wagging tongues to spout. But it doesn’t really tell us anything about Frodo. If this chapter is about a Baggins, it’s Bilbo, and what space is spent on him might make those familiar with The Hobbit uncomfortable, what with his “oddness”, the suspicions of his neighbours, their worryingly dismissive attitude of his party speech (“Obstinate silence” might be the entire books shortest sentence) and his closing change of personality, that contrasts so vividly with the happy-go-lucky adventurer who stumbled after Thorin’s company so many decades before. We’ll learn more about Frodo over the next 50 pages or so. Same for Merry, who gets a line towards the end of the first chapter, but can be described as little more than Frodo’s slightly sarcastic friend at this point. Sam also gets a brief mention, even if we are told that he is just a young gardener with dreams of grander things.
Generally speaking, the prose of “A Long Expected Party” is also really good. It’s full of nice little writing tricks, like the formation of the following sentence: “…it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth.” We read little of internal thought processes, with the point of view that of a third person, with a voice that often seems to represent the consciousness of the Shire itself, seeing many things but little understanding their significance. Bilbo and Gandalf fall back into friendly chatter easily in early conversations, making their verbal sparring later on even more notable, Tolkien’s descriptive flair is at its height (check out that paragraph on Gandalf’s fireworks, just a wonderful example of how to suck a reader into a moment) and in keeping with the Shire, he has time to introduce some brief, but badly needed levity which has an air of Terry Pratchett: “He gave away presents to all and sundry — the latter were those who went out again by a back way and came in again by the gate.” and, of course, that famous compliment/insult: “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve”.
And what characters get time to speak, from Hamfast to Bilbo, sound unique and real, Bilbo’s meandering birthday speech – “…if I may be allowed to refer to ancient history…” – being a special treat, especially after the roll call of hobbit family names that preceded it. We also are treated to an updated version of the legendary “The Road Goes Ever On”, that formed part of The Hobbit’s conclusion, and whose presence here helps to bridge the gap between that work and The Lord of the Rings:
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
“A Long Expected Party” needs to both introduce this world to newcomers, and re-introduce it to veterans of Tolkien’s previous outing in Middle-Earth. It needs to establish the darker tone, the changed circumstances and personality of Bilbo, and it needs to make the audience understand that the Ring is no longer just a useful magical item, but a thing of far greater darkness and potential trouble. It needs to introduce us to Frodo, and allow Bilbo his chance to leave the stage to his nephew in a notable manner. I believe that this opening chapter achieves all of that, and does in an entertaining and attention-capturing way.
Tradition dictates that you need to open a book, especially a fantasy book, with some sort of bang to try and get the hook into the reader. Tolkien eschews that, starting slow, and that feeling will continue for a few chapters. It’s something that is commonly seen as a weakness by many. But there are exciting incidents if you care to see them. The Lord of the Rings might not open with a battle, but I think it is unfair to describe it as not opening with a bang. It’s just not a very loud one. Bilbo’s unsteady status in his own community, his lashing out at Gandalf and the larger mystery about the Ring are all that’s required to keep the audience engaged (and entertained), even if we might well be as lost as Frodo. Luckily, Gandalf will be along with some explanations, next time.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.