But this appearance deceives.
Amid all the trivia about genealogy and hobbit architecture, the prologue reveals something essential: The Lord of the Rings is a book about books.
Authors and readers -- rather than mighty heroes or seasoned adventurers -- are the main characters. In the Prologue, we are first introduced to Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin. But we meet them in the act of writing, collecting and reading books. Some of these books are the books that they will write when the War of the Ring is over: Merry's Herblore of the Shire or The Tale of the Years. Some were written during the War itself, like Bilbo's Translations from the Elvish. And one very important work was written years before by Bilbo - this is the first part of the book the hobbits call the Red Book of Westmarch... or what we call The Hobbit.
The Red Book is important because it is the prototype for Frodo's own journey. As The Lord of the Rings progresses, Frodo will often end up comparing his adventures to the ones that he read about in The Hobbit. This seems natural enough perhaps, but it's good to take a step back and think about how weird this all is. A fictional character in a book writes the very book he's in. And then this real book goes on to be read by the main character in the book's sequel.
What's more, Tolkien uses the Prologue to play games with the real-life publication history of The Hobbit. In the Prologue, Tolkien tells us that after Bilbo obtained the Ring under the Misty Mountains, he lied to his companions and told them that Gollum meant to give him the Ring as a present. Tolkien writes:
This was the account Bilbo set down in his memoirs, and he seems never to have altered it himself, not even after the Council of Elrond. Evidently it still appeared in the original Red Book, as it did in several of the copies and abstracts. But many copies contain the true account... derived no doubt from notes by Frodo or Samwise...This is a peculiar thing to write because nowhere in any version of The Hobbit did Bilbo lie to the dwarves and tell them that he obtained the Ring as a present. Instead, what Tolkien is doing is making fun of the fact that he -- the author -- changed The Hobbit from edition to edition. In the first edition, Gollum is a more friendly character and does intend to give the Ring as a present; at this stage, Tolkien had not conceived of the plot of the Lord of the Rings, and the magic ring was just a trinket. But in later editions of The Hobbit, to accommodate the growing mythology of Sauron, Tolkien changed Gollum into a fiend who could never give the Ring up willingly. So really, it is not Bilbo who was telling fibs, as much at it was Tolkien himself.
Where does all this leave us? Well, as I read the Prologue, I am struck by the parallel between The Lord of the Rings and another great work of western literature. I speak of The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (1605) by Miguel de Cervantes -- or, as it is better know, Don Quixote.
|The Don (played by Nikolai Cherkassov in Don Quixote, 1957)
Don Quixote is a novel about a country squire nearing the age of 50 (incidentally, when they embark on their journeys, both Bilbo and Frodo are country squires nearing the age of 50). The Don's wits are addled by reading adventure stories, and imagining that he's a great hero, he sets off on a series of haphazard adventures. To assist him on his journey, he takes along a plain-speaking farmer to act as his squire... this is
More importantly, Don Quixote is also a book about books. As the Don travels, he keeps meeting people who have read earlier chapters of the book Don Quixote, and question him about his past doings in the very book that they are all now in. By doing this, Cervantes blurs the line between characters and readers. The effect is an endlessly self-referential work -- both funny and strange. The way that Cervantes plays with his readers is very much like how Tolkien plays with us in the Prologue.
I don't know if Tolkien was actually influenced by Cervantes. But I do believe that the similarities between both books helps explain their enduring power. The Don, Frodo and Bilbo are people like you and I: readers of adventure stories, probably somewhat bookish, not too used to wielding a sword. And as these characters are overtaken by the world of adventure, Cervantes and Tolkien find ingenious ways to make the reader feel like he or she is entering the same world. Both authors use the books in their books to open a gate.
To read on, here is my commentary on Chapter 1.