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Vincent Ferré, ‘Is The Lord of the Rings an Adventure Story?’

Vincent Ferré, author of the first critical study in French on The Lord of the Rings, argues that the main elements of Tolkien’s long and slow-paced romance are not adventures, battles and fights, but landscapes, pauses and contemplative episodes, meditations even, on the beauty of the invented world.

Fragmentary memories of an imaginary world

Such an inquiry might seem absurd, yet it calls into question the perception we have formed of such an imposing work as The Lord of the Rings, by selecting certain scenes at the expense of others, or attaching greater importance to a particular aspect of the book – thus failing to take into account the overall equilibrium of this multifaceted work, where every word has been the object of careful consideration, as the author repeatedly asserted in his correspondence (see Letters, no. 35 and 131).

And it just so happens that Tolkien readers, in their fond recollections of the book, are often less inclined to mention an event, battle or narrative incident, but more so a setting or character, an element of the invented world: Lórien, Tom Bombadil, Minas Tirith, etc. Testimonies of English and French language fantasy authors — such as those collected by Karen Haber in Meditations on Middle-earth — also provide striking evidence of the fact, as does the work of an illustrator such as Alan Lee, whose depictions are largely concerned with settings and landscapes, rather than with the action itself.

‘the fair valley of Rivendell where Elrond lives in the Last Homely House’

Of course, the pleasure of reading The Lord of the Rings partly lies in its ability to captivate, just like the works of Alexandre Dumas: the reader is carried along at breathless speed, like Gandalf and Pippin riding on Shadowfax towards Gondor. But The Lord of the Rings is not, contrary to popular belief, a novel of heroic fantasy; the essence of it does not reside in fight scenes, of which there are in the end very few (on Weathertop, against Shelob, against the leader of the Nazgûl…), although they are memorable; or in battle scenes, which are concentrated in the latter part of the book — one may recall the Fields of Pelennor, or the battle before the Black Gate. And yet, to some, this is precisely what the The Lord of the Rings boils down to… much like the whole of Tolkien’s output is sometimes reduced to a single text!

This kind of oversimplification is therefore nothing new; but it is regrettable in that it brushes aside the whole contemplative aspect of the book, often very slow in pace, and peculiar in structure, that is to say, alternating between moments of action and pause: the episode of the Old Forest leading to the stay in Bombadil’s house; the confrontation with the Barrow-wight preceding the evening at the Prancing Pony; the flight to the ford occurring just before the prolonged halt in Rivendell; not to mention the long sojourn in Lórien, after the fall of Gandalf in Moria. The amount of time spent in these places is not to be measured only in hours or days, all the more because our heroes sometimes lose track of time: it also has physical reality in the number of pages allotted to each episode — thirteen for Tom Bombadil, whereas the encounter with Old Man Willow occupies only two; two also for Frodo’s flight before the Black Riders, whereas the stay at Elrond’s house takes up more than sixty. To examine the composition of a text is often more enlightening than to linger on a few hasty impressions: given the emphasis, in the text itself, on the physical reality of the work, on the origins of the Red Book, on the existence of sources, archives, etc., it would be foolish not make use of such means to determine the balance between action and contemplation.

A contemplative romance

Contemplation of Middle-earth, indeed, for each pause in the narrative is instrumental in the discovery of Tolkien’s invented world, both by the reader and the characters who populate it. Thus Frodo, in Rivendell,

‘walked along the terraces above the loud-flowing Bruinen and watched the pale, cool sun rise above the far mountains, and shine down, slanting through the thin silver mist; the dew upon the yellow leaves was glimmering, and the woven nets of gossamer twinkled on every bush. … The snow was white upon [the] peaks.’

Or near the Forbidden Pool:

The world was quiet and cold, as if dawn were near. Far off in the West the full moon was sinking, round and white. Pale mists shimmered in the great vale below: a wide gulf of silver fume, beneath which rolled the cool night-waters of the Anduin. A black darkness loomed beyond, and in it glinted, here and there, cold, sharp, remote, white as the teeth of ghosts, the peaks of Ered Nimrais, the White Mountains of the Realm of Gondor, tipped with everlasting snow.

Examples are far too numerous to be cited in full. Pippin atop the citadel in Minas Tirith, Frodo on Amon Hen… even from the window of a house (Tom Bombadil’s) at the foot of the hill, one may look out to the world:

the grey top of the hill loomed up against the sunrise. It was a pale morning: in the East, behind long clouds like lines of soiled wool stained red at the edges, lay glimmering deeps of yellow. The sky spoke of rain to come; but the light was broadening quickly …

But we have yet to speak of the Shire. The narrative begins and ends in this part of the world, a region largely shielded from outside events, cut off from adventure, since one must leave its confines — as Bilbo did, then Frodo and his companions — to experience adventure. How many readers have indeed complained that The Lord of the Rings starts off too slowly, dwelling at length on the preparations for Bilbo’s party, until Frodo finally leaves in his turn… after a good fifty pages — nearly eighty, including the Prologue? The author draws attention to this paradox in his response to a criticism by Rayner Unwin, who thought precisely that scenes of hobbit life took up too much space in the first chapters: ‘The problem is that “hobbit talk” amuses me privately (and to a certain degree also my boy Christopher) more than adventures’ (Letters, no. 28). Here, the author is seen delighting in the observation of the imaginary world.

Map of the north-west of Middle-earth

A journey: places and characters

Tellingly enough, although he has been known to use the term adventures to describe the events experienced by Frodo and Sam (in particular), Tolkien often does this within quotation marks (see Letters, no. 94, 131, 153), meaning to show a certain distance with this use of the term. And when The Lord of the Rings is to be analysed on the premise of adventure, as W.H. Auden attempted in an article, Tolkien minimizes the significance of such a notion, choosing instead to emphasize the theme of the journey, of travelling to imaginary places, and pointing out the narrative interest he sees in such a motif (Letters, no. 183). This is hardly surprising, on the part of an author who speaks of ‘the visions and horizons that open in [his] mind,’ as he writes (Letters, no. 64).

Let us leave the last word to the author… Reflecting on The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien does not evoke the action, but rather the places, and those characters associated with them:

I met a lot of things on the way that astonished me. Tom Bombadil I knew already; but I had never been to Bree. Strider sitting in the corner at the inn was a shock, and I had no more idea who he was than had Frodo. The Mines of Moria had been a mere name; and of Lothlórien no word had reached my mortal ears till I came there. Far away I knew there were the Horse-lords on the confines of an ancient Kingdom of Men, but Fangorn Forest was an unforeseen adventure. I had never heard of the House of Eorl nor of the Stewards of Gondor. (Letters, no. 163)