Welcome to the first of my series of blog posts in which I analyse The Lord of the Rings novels chapter by chapter. We begin with the first chapter, A Long-Expected Party.
Bilbo’s birthday always struck me as an odd place to start the story—it has caused more than one reader to give up on the novel. They were promised adventure and epic tales of good vs evil, not detailed descriptions of Hobbits sitting around hobnobbing at the pub. It’s worth bearing in mind that TLOTR received no structural editing from a third party at all—though his publishers were very much of the opinion that it needed to be cut down, Tolkien resisted what he saw as interference. You can do that when you’re an established author, though I personally am not sure it’s ever a good idea. It takes a village to raise a novelist. I suspect that if Tolkien submitted his novel to an editor today, they would advise him to open with a more gripping prologue, preferably something violent. Perhaps Isildur slicing the ring from Sauron’s hand? If I were writing the story, I’d probably start with Smeagol taking the Ring from Deagol. But, you know, I’m not the one telling the story, and that’s absolutely okay. I’ve decided on quite a conscious level to let Tolkien take me on a journey with his characters. Readers, on the whole, were more patient in the post-war period. I can be patient too.
So why start with the birthday party? At first glance, the party seems somewhat extraneous to the larger story. The closest thing we get to a narrative hook is that Bilbo has lived an unnaturally long life and seems not to be ageing: ‘”It will have to be paid for,” they said. “It isn’t natural, and trouble will come of it!’” Here Tolkien seems to be very much reliant upon the audience’s investment in the character of Bilbo. Fair enough: it’s a fair bet that anybody who picks up TLOTR will have read The Hobbit first. And yet the narrative purpose behind the birthday party doesn’t become obvious without close reading.
For me, it didn’t become clear why Tolkien would start with lengthy descriptions of the birthday party until I got into Chapter 2, where we hear the sad story of how Gollum stole the Ring and murdered his best friend—on his birthday. He felt he was entitled to possess the Ring for no reason other than the fact it was his birthday. The Hobbits of the Shire, on the other hand, celebrate their existence by giving, not taking. Tolkien speaks at great length of Bilbo’s generosity and the lavish and helpful gifts he bestows upon his poorer friends and relatives. Throughout the novel, Gollum will refer to the Ring as his ‘birthday present.’ Frodo too receives the Ring upon his birthday. After all, he and Bilbo share their special day. Even at this very early point in the story, Frodo and Gollum share a connection. The difference is that Frodo received the Ring in the spirit of kinship. He didn’t take the ring, it was given to him freely and willingly—more or less. And I think it’s easy to overlook the fact that Bilbo explicitly tells us the purpose of the party:
‘“After all that’s what this party business was about, really: to give away lots of birthday-presents, and somehow make it easier to give it away at the same time.’”
Gollum, on the other hand, would never have dreamed of giving away the Ring; certainly not on his birthday. Embedding this sort of parallel between Gollum and the Hobbits is brilliant, especially given how intensely the story will revolve around Gollum’s capacity for redemption under Frodo’s guidance.
The long-expected party, then, is absolutely integral to the characterisation of the protagonists and to the resolution of the central conflict.
Here’s a few stray observations from Chapter 1:
- Tolkien shows a surprising amount of meta-humour. One of the first things Bilbo tells us is that nobody is going to read his book, of which TLOTR and The Hobbit are supposedly translations. You’re reading that you’re not going to read what you’re reading.
- It’s interesting that Merry is introduced as one of Frodo’s close friends, while Sam is all but absent from the opening chapter.
- Did Tolkien invent the word ‘tween?’
- Tolkien the stickler uses the British ‘connexion’ rather than the Americanism ‘connection.’ I’m really glad the editors haven’t seen fit to ‘correct’ this archaism.
- One of the highlights of the chapter is the quarrel between Bilbo and Gandalf—I really got the sense that these were old friends who hadn’t seen each other in a long time, and one has gone down a bad path. There is a sense that each speaker is working under the influence of a higher power yet to reveal itself. Gandalf hints at his true ability as a supernatural creature and ring-bearer, while Bilbo shows signs that the Ring’s influence is starting to bend his mind.
The reasons will be revealed next week, as we move into the Exposition Zone with The Shadow of the Past.
Until next time,