Chapter 6 of The Fellowship of the Ring
In this Chapter, the intrepid hobbits wander into the magical Old Forest and find themselves bewildered, enchanted and entrapped. I don't so much have a commentary on this chapter as I do a question: Why is there so much overlap between The Lord of the Rings and its predecessor, The Hobbit?
There are many parallels between the two books, including a journey through a menacing, sentient forest. Consider these two passages:
They picked a way among the trees, and their ponies plodded along carefully avoiding the many writhing and interlacing roots... and as they went forward it seemed that the trees became taller, darker, and thicker. There was no sound, except an occasional drip of moisture falling through the still leaves. For the moment there was no whispering or movement among the branches; but they all got an uncomfortable feeling that they were being watched with disapproval, deepening to dislike and even enmity.And this...
They walked in single file. The entrance to the path was like a sort of arch leading into a gloomy tunnel made by two great trees that leant together, too old and strangled with ivy and hung with lichen to bear more than a few blackened leaves. The path itself was narrow and wound in and out among the trunks. Soon... the quiet was so deep that their feet seemed to thump along while all the trees leaned over them and listened.The first excerpt is from the chapter under consideration and describes the Old Forest. The second is a description of Mirkwood from chapter 8 of The Hobbit, "Spiders and Flies".
But of course the similarities between the Old Forest and Mirkwood are only the tip of the iceberg. In no particular order, here are some of the other parallels between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings:
- Both books have a Baggins for the (unlikely) hero.
- Both involve a party of adventurers led by Gandalf.
- In both books, Gandalf disappears and then rejoins the companions.
- Both books bring us to Rivendell to consult with the wise Elrond.
- Both involve a failed crossing through a pass in the Misty Mountains.
- Both take us to the orc-infested tunnels beneath the Misty Mountains.
- In both books, giant Eagles provide a timely rescue (or two!).
- Spiders are an "intermediate" villain in both books.
- Ultimately, both books require the hobbit to sneak into the domain of a vastly powerful and evil being.
- In both books, we meet a scion of kings who has now fallen on hard times. However, by the end of both books, both Bard and Aragorn will return to kingship.
- Both books climax in a grand, set-piece battle in which the hobbit plays little role.
- In the widest sense, both works conclude the epic quest with the journey back home -- which return helps the reader appreciate how much the hobbit has been changed by his adventure.
For me, the question is why did Tolkien tread twice over the same ground? It's not like he needed to repeat himself. Works like The Silmarillion and The Children of Hurin show us that he's more than capable of different types of heroes and different settings. His conception of Middle-earth is so vast, it's almost perverse that he had Frodo follow in Bilbo's footsteps from the Shire to Rivendell to the Misty Mountains and beyond. I mean, why not have Frodo go due south from the Shire? Or strike out West and head to the Grey Havens, there to take a ship to the environs of Mordor? Why did Tolkien repeat himself?
I'd truly love to hear what other people think of this. For my own part, I think that The Lord of the Rings started out as a sequel to The Hobbit, but "as the tale grew in the telling" (to borrow Tolkien's own description of his creative process), something unforeseen happened: The Lord of the Rings became not a sequel, but a revision of The Hobbit. Tolkien was still haunted by the same images of Middle-earth, and so arranged them in a different key. The journey under the mountains and across a magical landscape changed from a light and playful children's story into a dark and Germanic epic. It's the same story, told two very different ways.
Where does this leave us as readers? When we come upon areas where Tolkien repeated himself (like the magical forest in this chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring) we know that we've hit upon an image or an event that was so powerful, Tolkien needed two kicks at the can. These are the images that lie at the heart of his imagination.
To read on, here is my commentary on Chapter 7. Or you can find my commentary on Chapter 5 here.
[Image credit: The Brothers Hildebrandt "Old Man Willow" Acrylic on Board (1978).]