For several years the magazine Gilbert! ran a column called “Off the Shelf,” in which a book reviewer pulled an old, worn book off of his bookshelf, reread it, and responded to this rereading. For the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the The Lord of the Rings, they published a series reviewing these books and pointing out the potential connections between them and the writer G. K. Chesterton.Over the next several weeks, we will be republishing these reviews with the kind permission of their author.
The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien. Book review by Mike Foster, 2004. Originally written for GILBERT, the magazine for the American Chesterton Society. Republished with author’s permission.
Nearly forty years on the shelf have aged this book, the Ballantine authorized paperback edition with its bizarre, garish cover depicting emus, frogs, and other things that appear nowhere inside. Its battered back is braced by industrial cellophane tape; its curling pages have browned at the edges and mellowed to a dull pale gold in the center. It smells like dusty velvet.
For this first of three columns celebrating the golden anniversary of The Lord of the Rings’ publication, pulling the oldest copy of the first volume off the shelf seemed fitting.
The mark of a much-read masterpiece is, paradoxically, novelty. Amid familiar passages as well-beloved as family photographs, new delights of detail unnoticed before reveal themselves.
The prefatory “Note on the Shire Records,” for instance, limns the bibliographic history of the lost Red Book of Westmarch from Bilbo to Frodo to Sam. Meriadoc’s Thain’s book is the first copy, adding the tale of Aragorn and Arwen, “Concerning Pipe-weed,” and other lore. Merry was a prolific writer; Pippin (no surprise) was not, yet his Great Smials in Tuckborough contained much history from Gondor and Numenor. Thus these three hobbits all founded libraries. That tidbit pops up before chapter one.
The Fellowship of the Ring opens with a magnificent party and ends with a sundered fellowship. Tolkien had begun it in 1937 when his publisher requested a sequel to the soon-to-be-published The Hobbit.
But “this tale grew in the telling.” Unlike its chatty, whimsical predecessor, The Lord of the Rings became something grander, grimmer, and greater. A ring, the lucky talisman that enables Bilbo Baggins’ heroism, becomes The One Ring, a sovereign power that bodes Frodo Baggins’ doom. By page 287, The Hobbit had gone there, back again, and ended; Frodo has only just defied the Black Riders at the Rivendell ford. The story is barely begun, only one-sixth told. The Hobbit’s Gloin, with white beard and garments bedecked in diamonds and silver, soon will have Frodo “rather lost among the strange names of people and places that he had never heard of before,” a sympathy many readers will share.
Part of the pleasure of re-reading is the physical book: the hand-feel, the cover, the memories evoked. Both finer editions and marked-up class copies lurk in my library, but this Tolkien was the first: an old MarquetteUniversity friend. In pre-publication haste, artist Barbara Remington hadn’t time to read it before painting her trio of purple, hazy covers, which explains why they and the maps’ calligraphy (presumably hers) seem more suited to a Jefferson Airplane concert poster than Middle-earth.
Tolkien cites Chesterton four times in “On Fairy Stories,” written concurrently with beginning this “new Hobbit.” Like Chesterton, he was a gifted illustrator from boyhood on. The vivid visualizations of both writers at their best employ every color of the prosodist’s paintbox.
Arguably, The Lord of the Rings is the most Chestertonian novel ever written, especially in the homely joys of the Shire’s rich simple life of family, friendships, cheer, and beer that the hobbits must leave behind. Bilbo’s sillier songs seem younger cousins of Chesterton’s more playful poems.
Above all, a great story begins here, the apotheosis of the mythic quest. Finally, Tolkien led this writer and many others to Chesterton, a gift beyond gold. Re-reading both writers seems a proper anniversary gift from us to ourselves.
Thanks to Douglas A. Anderson