Tolkien’s Unconventional Hook: An Examination of the Beginning of The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (Mariner Books 2002) pp. 96-119

Beginning a story in the middle of the action is a common and effective solution to a problem that many writers face: hooking the reader. As many readers and writers know, if a reader isn’t hooked within their first few minutes of a read, they are far less likely to continue reading and eventually finish the story. Dropping the reader into the action is a clever way to grab their interest. In medias res is the literary term for this – translated from Latin as “into the midst of things”. It is perhaps curious, then, that Tolkien didn’t exactly do this when he began The Lord of the Rings, one of the most classic, beloved works of literature of the 20th century, if not of all time.

If you’ve seen Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of the book, you will know that the story begins in medias res, detailing the origin of the One Ring and the struggle against Sauron by The Last Alliance of Elves and Men at the Siege of Barad-dûr during the Second Age, but this is not the case in the book. The Lord of the Rings begins far more modestly, in the most unassuming of ways: the planning of Bilbo Baggins’ one hundred and eleventh birthday.

So why is it important to acknowledge Tolkien’s decision to begin this epic tale of great battles, monsters, wizards, and magic on such a modest foot (there is probably a Proudfeet joke there somewhere, but I’m not funny enough to cash in)? In a way, Tolkien asked a great deal of his readers with the way he began the book. The party planning in Hobbiton goes on for what many readers consider to be a laborious length of reading time, and this opinion isn’t entirely unfair, even to great lovers of the book. I think it is imperative that we recognize the great importance that Tolkien placed on our understanding of Hobbits.

I really believe that Tolkien was keenly aware of scope when he penned this story (I’ll go into further detail on this in future posts), and understanding the scope of the War of the Ring requires us, as readers, to be intimately aware of the nature of Hobbits – these most unlikely of creatures to carry the fate of Middle-Earth on their backs. Personally, I have had life experiences in which I was thrust into the midst of things – in medias res – and I have had life experiences that started with me feeling like Ham Gamgee when he said, “Don’t go getting mixed up in the business of your betters, or you’ll land in trouble too big for you”. Both types of experiences have been memorable and transformative, but if I think about it I feel, in those endeavors with humbler beginnings, a more profound sense of ownership over their narrative, because I was just a peace-loving Hobbit, “still in love with the Shire, with woods and fields and little rivers”, who set out on a quest much bigger than myself and got swept away.

In summary, I encourage you, readers, whether delving into The Lord of the Rings for the first time or revisiting the story again, to take your time to acquire an intimacy with and a fondness for the Hobbits that Tolkien clearly wanted so desperately for us to care deeply for. Take part in the good food and drink, attend Bilbo’s birthday, revel in Gandalf’s fireworks – then at journey’s end you may find that you look back with tremendous affection on that birthday party and the comforts of home.

Nick

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