Friday, September 4, 2015

Reading along with the Lord of the Rings: The Old Forest

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. 
The overlap is so pervasive that if the two books were written by different authors, you would call The Lord of the Rings a work of plagiarism. 

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).]


  1. You've done a nice job ticking off the overlapping themes and events of the Hobbit and LotR. Personally, I think of the Hobbit as a kid's book (shorter, simpler and much more digestible) and LotR as the grown up version. So, I think you hit the nail on the head when you said "same story, told two very different ways".

  2. FRom what I understand the Hobbit in it's first version was more of a children's book that Tolkien revised when he wrote the LoTR later on and meshed the two together. An example of the later revisions is the necromancer - in the Hobbit he is really mentioned in passing whilst in the LoTRs it is made clear he is Sauron who is the major enemy of the piece. The re-drafting also explains the common ground - the former in it's first version is aimed at a different audience and as such it doesn't matter so much if the author goes over some familiar ground in each as each book/series is written for different audiences. As such he can use some of the material again in the longer story. It if fine by me as both books make from wonderful reading.

  3. In all honesty, Tolkien says in Letters to Unwin that he'd used all his best ideas in The Hobbit, and we have to just conceed that on one level he'd just run out of things to say. On another level, we have this 'fantastical' intertextuality going on, which specifically involves the patterning of Myth into Fairy-Tale (the figure of The Man in The Moon, who Frodo will sing of in Bree features through Tilion of the Silmarillion, to Roverandom and into Nursery Rhyme) the telling and retelling of the same underlaying story through different voices.

    Then we have the centrality of the Forest in medieval European imaginative, from Mallory's Forest Perilous to Morris's Mirkwood of the Wolfings and his The Wood Beyond the World to C.S. Lewis Wood Between the Worlds. The great dark European Forest is a space between worlds, the borderlands. So steeped in such material, how could a history written by Hobbits possibly not include an episode (or two!) of getting lost in A Forest?

  4. This is more a question of style more than plagiarism. Think back to John Fogherty, from CCR, who got sued by his fromer record company when he recorded his solo music in the 80's They claimed that his music sounded too much like CCR and that he stole the sound from his former self. The case got thrown out by a judge.They said it was a case of creative style that is insrtinsically his own. Same thing for writers. Examples such as you site can be found in many authors like Stephen King and others. It is their own style that they are repeating.

  5. The Old Forest is also much more developed and sinister than Mirkwood. And it prepares the reader for Fangorn Forest and Treebeard.
    Tolkien also had a thing for trees and wanted the reader to be aware of an older world, older even than the elves, Sauron and the Ring.

  6. Fascinating comments. I think Miekd is quite right that plagiarism is probably not the right word. Self-cannibalism is also a little derogatory (although perhaps not entirely inaccurate if Zhu is right about Tolkien "using up" all his good ideas. In some ways, maybe the LOTR really just is The Hobbit for grownups. Well, perhaps. I always like reading the LOTR with The Hobbit in mind, because I think it's "childishness" adds a breeziness to Middle-earth that is indispensable.