Friday, 4 April 2014

The strange opening scene of The Lord of the Rings


I have read The Lord of the Rings many times over many years; but it has only recently struck me that the book begins strangely - in the sense that I had, in a way, completely forgotten what is the opening scene; or, at least, my memory had placed this scene somewhat later.

The opening scene is a conversation among peripheral-character hobbits at the Ivy Bush inn, presided over by Sam's father - The Gaffer Gamgee; and whose only significant other character is the nasty miller Sandyman.


It is interesting and peculiar that Tolkien chose to open his epic romance with such a scene. The Hobbit has nothing similar, since we have seen Bilbo talking with dwarves, elves, men and a wizard - but the book lacked hobbit to hobbit interactions.

So one purpose served by this scene is to give the Hobbit fans a better idea of the characteristics of hobbits - which was indeed the primary intention of LotR.


What are these characteristics of hobbits?

Well, they seem - at this point - to be exactly like the kind of rural folk of the south of England that lived around me as a child, and not-at-all idealized: the Ivy Bush conversation has just that tone of spiteful gossip, ameliorated by a loyalty which is primarily to family, then to village, then region, then to the race of hobbits - and which stops at that point.

This is the typical 'peasant' insularity and almost delight in suspiciousness - a determination to be 'down-to-earth' shrewd, nobody's fool...


So there is a suspicion of the Hobbiton Hobbits towards the strange Bucklanders 'a queer breed, seemingly'; but mitigated by local-familial connections 'After all his father was a Baggins.'' And towards non-Hobbits who Sandyman regards as 'outlandish folk' - such as dwarves and 'that old wandering conjourer, Gandalf'.

And a suspicion of anything 'above' the mundane and everyday concerns of 'Cabbages and Potatoes' - and the Gaffer pours scorn on Sam's interest in 'stories of the old days', 'Elves and Dragons' and even worries that Bilbo has taught him to reading and write - 'I hope that no harm will come of it'.


Tolkien's enjoyment in writing this scene is palpable, and the language is beautifully judged to communicate a great deal on many levels. But what a strange way to begin the book!

On the face of it, and I am sure in practice, it is very off-putting to open proceedings in such an apparently leisurely fashion (in retrospect we can perceive that there is no padding, everything is there for a reason - but that is not how it looks at first reading); with a bunch of genuinely-ignorant yokels gossipping at the local tavern.

There is some important plot and character exposition, but in an almost perversely-unsophisticated way - because it comes via narrowly parochial rustic speech and concerns of the protagonists.

In practice, the scene probably serves as a filter, to draw-in 'people who like this sort of thing' and discourage those who don't; and also it demonstrates that The Shire is no idyll; but on the contrary, aside from the diminutive stature of its occupants, almost indistinguishable from the English countryside of a century ago.


1 comment:

Don said...

What? Englishmen are not three feet tall with furry toes wearing breeches and tunics?

Next you'll be telling me the farmers plow with tractors instead of by pony or oxen.