September 14th, 2021


Arthur contra mundum

The consensus opinion among Tolkien critics -- including those who greatly admire his work -- is that The Lord of the Rings is slow to get going, and that the Bombadil/Old Forest chapters add nothing of significance to the story.

But I remember when I first read LOTR as a young teen, my opinion was rather that the rest of the mammoth novel was a bit rushed. After so much detail, so deep a draught of Middle-earth as The Fellowship of the Ring offered, I expected more battles like Helm's Deep and the Siege of Minas Tirith, more delayed climaxes. I was shocked that this war that had simmered on the hob for so long and finally overboiled its pot should be completely finished in only a few months. Indeed, between the breaking of the Fellowship at Rauros and the fall of Sauron is only twenty-nine days. (The Fellowship spends a whole month in Lothlorien, doing, well, not much, and there isn't much to say about it. This adds to the sense of too-quick resolution.)

True, the breakneck pace after Rauros is attractive. It holds your interest. But C.S. Lewis pointed out that he and Tolkien were both veterans of the First World War, and there is a flavor (to his generation) of that war in the book. Yet that war was as long and heart-breaking a struggle in the mud and blood of war as can be imagined. With our focus tightly kept on the members of the Fellowship, we don't see as much of the struggle between Sauron and the West, and LOTR suffers for it, I think.

Would people stand for a Hobbit War and Peace? Probably not. And it is still a very great work. But whether it takes too long to get going or rushes toward its conclusion is very much a matter of opinion.

Point of view in LOTR

One of the achievements of The Lord of the Rings is its complicated narrative architecture. Stories are interlaced and we follow, now this sub-plot, now that. They leap ahead and lag behind, and the reader has to follow very closely to have a sense of how the whole plot is progressing. Yet so firmly does the story engage us that we take for granted whatever scene we are passing through.

One of the ways in which Tolkien manages this is a very firm grasp of point-of-view. We see this story mainly through Frodo’s mind. As the story develops, we occasionally enter Merry or Pippin’s mind. Toward the end, we see a lot of the story through Sam’s mind. The Hobbits are the characters through which we understand the entire story. On the rare occasions in which there is no Hobbit to see the action through, Tolkien tends to draw back into a limited omniscience in which we see the main characters act and talk, but we do not enter their minds.

Book I opens with “A Long-Expected Party,” in which the main character is Bilbo. And yet, we really don’t see the action through Billbo’s mind. He is secretive and his motives are hidden. In this, he matches Gandalf. The narrator’s voice is very strong in this chapter. Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past,” starts out with a fair amount of narration, followed by a long dialogue between Gandalf and Frodo. This is mostly limited omniscience, but we begin to see the story through Frodo’s eyes. His character begins to fill out for us just a bit.

The next few chapters feature the Hobbits as they set out for Rivendell. Frodo is the constant throughout. We share his thoughts and doubts. Sam and Merry become more solid, though we do not enter their minds. The party passes through the perils of the Old Forest and the Barrow-downs, and Tom Bombadil makes a big impression, but still it is Frodo’s point of view that is consistently maintained.

We are introduced to Strider (Aragorn) in Bree, and he becomes ever more important and complete as he guides the Hobbits through danger to Rivendell. Sam, also, becomes more solid. But still, we only see them act and speak. We still see the action largely through Frodo’s point of view.

Book 2 opens with “The Council of Elrond.” Now in Rivendell, we meet up with Bilbo again and many other characters are introduced; nevertheless, Frodo remains the character through whom we view the action. On the long slog down to Moria, Gandalf and Aragorn are the primary actors, but once again, we see them through Frodo’s eyes.

Gimli begins to come into his own in Moria and thereafter. And Aragorn assumes leadership of the Fellowship after Gandalf’s fall. Sam emerges much more strongly in the Lothlorien scenes. Boromir, as he wrestles with temptation, begins to become a more real person. But through all this and the final scenes in which Frodo decides to abandon the Fellowship, we see everything through his eyes. Sam's actions begin to make him the focus at the very end.

Book 3 shifts focus. Frodo and Sam are off-stage throughout this book. Chapters 1 and 2, “The Departure of Boromir” and “The Riders of Rohan” focus on Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli. Legolas begins to become a real person for us. And yet, during these chapters Tolkien reverts to limited omniscience. We learn what the three hunters think by what they say and how they act – we do not enter their minds. With Chapter 3, “The Uruk-Hai,” we begin to follow Merry and Pippin, and we see the action through their eyes (particularly Pippin’s). Pippin’s point of view is maintained through the next chapter, “Treebeard.”

We then shift back to Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and the restored Gandalf. We see them talking. We witness their confrontation with Wormtongue and the healing of Theoden. We see them ride off to battle, and we have the magnificent battle of Helm’s Deep. But we are witnessing all this like those watching a stage-play. We are looking at the events from outside, not through any of the characters' minds. We return to Pippin as the lead character at the end, when he looks into the Palantir.

Book 4 is about the journey of Frodo and Sam (with Gollum) to the borders of Mordor. You would think that we would return to seeing things through Frodo’s eyes, but in fact our guide to these events is Sam. He is now emerging as the real hero – the main protagonist – of LOTR. The book ends with Frodo captured and all our attention concentrated on “The Choices of Master Samwise.”

Book 5 opens with “Minas Tirith,” in which we see the action through Pippin’s eyes. Chapter 2, “The Passing of the Grey Company” returns to limited omniscience, but with “The Muster of Rohan,” Merry takes over as the character we see the action through. We enter his mind as he rides with the Rohirrim to the relief of Minas Tirith and through “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields.” Then it’s back to Pippin’s point of view for “The Madness of Denethor” and “The Houses of Healing.” “The Last Debate” is mostly done in limited omniscience, but “The Black Gate Opens” returns us to Pippin as the commentator on the action.

The first four chapters of Book 6 are all Sam. Then we have mostly limited omniscience until the Hobbits get back to the Shire. And again, this has become Sam’s story. We see everything through his eyes, through until the end, when he returns from the Grey Havens.

So all through, we see the story through the various Hobbits’ eyes. In those parts where no Hobbit is present, Tolkien retreats to limited omniscience, and does it so well we don’t notice that we aren’t really inside any character’s head. So, the story of the LOTR is told through the point of view of Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, but as the story goes on, the principal role shifts from Frodo to Sam.