"Lord of the Rings" Read Along Part 1! Prologue through "Three is Company"

Prologue: Is the Prologue Necessary?

I suspect that the Prologue is no more necessary than the Appendices. Perhaps only the portion of the Prologue that tells us how Bilbo found the Ring is necessary for those who did not read The Hobbit, but I suspect they could pick it up from the text without the Prologue. Note that the Prologue serves a different purpose for those who read the original edition of The Hobbit, before it was edited to fit the needs of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien explains why the original published version was not the true story but was nevertheless found in the original Red Book and some copies that had not been edited by Frodo or Sam.

Tolkien also uses the Prologue to explain a wide variety of tone in The Lord of the Rings and its Appendices by explaining that it is a translation of a tale told by several authors, including Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and scribes in Gondor. It’s not clear to me this explanation holds up when we read the text. That is, I don’t think Tolkien consciously had Bilbo in mind when he wrote some chapters, Frodo in mind for others, etc. Rather, he added this explanation after the fact in an attempt to explain a change in tone that evolved for other reasons, as this sequel to The Hobbit gradually evolved into a sequel to The Silmarillion.

I think many first-time readers skip the Prologue, or at best skim it before moving on to the story in chief. But the very existence of a mock-historical Prologue, as well as the Appendices, gives the reader a strong hint of the differences between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Then again, the sheer length of The Lord of the RingsPrologue: Tolkien, Race, and Overcoming Prejudice

In describing the hobbits’ migration Tolkien describes three different “breeds” of hobbits, Harfoots, Stoors, and Fallohides, with the Harfoots most friendly with dwarves, the Stoors most friendly with men, and the Fallohides most friendly with elves. The Fallohides are also natural leaders, taller, and fairer of skin and hair. This raises a larger point which some fans don’t like to consider. Lord of the Rings is filled with races and subraces of sentient beings and generalizations about them. Tolkien is a man of his time, when “race” was considered a scientific term. And the best races in Lord of the Rings have “fair” or white skin, not brown. Blonde hair is also a plus.

It’s an uncomfortable concept today, when early 20th century racial classifications have been thoroughly discredited by science. (For those who doubt it, did you know that non-Africans, even those of different races, such as the Chinese and Indians and Europeans and Native Americans, are more closely related to each other than Africans are to Africans? That’s because all non-Africans have a small group of common ancestors who left Africa about 100,000 years ago.)

But in the story itself, the characters often defy what are supposed to be their racial or subracial characteristics: Sam the brown-skinned Harfoot becomes a Fallohide-like adventurer and leader. Gimli and Legolas become fast friends. Aragorn overcomes society’s scorn to become king and marry an elf. Prejudice is a hurdle that must be overcome so that the free peoples can unite against a common foe. This is true on a large scale throughout Middle-earth and on a small scale in the Fellowship of the Ring and the Scouring of the Shire. The very fact that the hobbits are the heroes of the tale defies all the stereotypes about Middle-earth heroes.

Still, bloodlines remain important. Although Sam is not a Fallohide, he has a Fallohide strain in him, revealed in his golden-haired sister Marigold, which Galadriel’s blessing strengthens in his children, especially Elanor and Goldilocks. (Tolkien explains this in his Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings, a guide he wrote for translators.) And the other three hobbits are typical Fallohides. Aragorn is part of an unbroken line of kings. Gimli and Legolas have royal blood.

So yes, Tolkien is a man of his times, and does not reject the importance of race or bloodlines, but he does reject prejudice between the free peoples. That leaves only the prejudice against orcs, trolls, and monsters, although the pity shown to Gollum raises the question of whether even the worst of Middle-earth’s monsters might not be capable of redemption. As Gandalf says, “I pity even [Sauron’s] slaves.” RotK Book V Chapter 4 (Siege of Gondor).

I sometimes wish I didn’t know the racial theories expressed in the Prologue, Appendices, and other non-narrative writings like the Guide to Names. I’m much more comfortable with the themes found in the text of Lord of the Rings, themes of overcoming prejudice and relying on unlikely heroes (or even the antihero Gollum) who succeed where the mighty had failed. But I suppose it’s good to know what prejudices Tolkien himself struggled to overcome.

should signal that this is not a children’s book, at least not in the ordinary sense. It is a feigned history.

The Second Edition Forward also suggests these differences, starting with the line “This tale grew in the telling, until it became a history of the Great War of the Ring and included many glimpses of the yet more ancient history that preceded it.” The First Edition Forward started similarly, but with a mock-historical tone more like the Prologue: “This tale, which has grown to be almost a history of the great War of the Ring, is drawn for the most part from the memoirs of the renowned Hobbits, Bilbo and Frodo, as they are preserved in the Red Book of Westmarch.”

By the way, what I miss most from the original forward is a simple footnote on pronunciation, up front instead of buried in the appendices:

Some may welcome a preliminary note on the pronunciation actually intended by the spellings used in this history. The letters c and g are always 'hard' (as k, and g in get), even before e, i, und y; ch is used as in Welsh or German, not as in English church. The diphtongs ai (ae), and au (aw), represent sounds like those heard in brine and brown, and not those in brain and brawn. Long vowels are all marked with an accent, or with a circumflex, and are usually also stressed. Thus Legolas has a short o, and is meant to be stressed on the initial syllable. These remarks do not apply to the names of the Hobbits of their Shire, which have all been anglicized, for reasons later explained.

It’s Keleborn, Kirith Ungol, and Kirdan, not Seleborn, Sirith Ungol, or Sirdan. It’s DOO-ne-dine, not Duh-nu-dane. It’s SOWron, never SAWron. It’s LE-gah-las, not LEGO-las. It’s Mee-nas Tee-reeth, not Mi-nus Ti-rith. I would have appreciated a heads up in the forward.

It’s also J.R.R. Tol-keen, not J.R.R. Tol-kin.  Even Stephen Colbert gets that wrong.
/r/tolkienfans Thread