Prologue? Why not just start with Chapter One?
As Treebeard would say, "Now don't be hasty." There are some important items to comment on in the Prologue. But first, allow me to digress a bit...to the Forward.
I remember one time when I was coming out of a theater after having just seen Peter Jackson's "The Fellowship of the Ring" and I happened to overhear a group of teenagers who were analyzing the story and talking in terms of allegory and symbolism. One of the kids was explaining to his friends that the ring represented the atomic bomb and proceeded to elaborate on the parallels of the story to events that took place during World War II.
This kind of thing really irks me because it's a myth that's been recycled for years. No, the ring does not represent the A-bomb. After all, the bulk of the plot was written prior to August 1945 (as documented in Tolkien's early drafts) before anyone outside the highest levels of the U.S. government had even known about the bomb. And Mordor is not supposed to be Nazi Germany, and Sauron was not Hitler and the Fellowship does not represent the Allies in WWII.
Tolkien himself states in the Forward to the Second Edition (published in 1965) that the events in the book do not correspond to actual historical events and he expressed his annoyance over such theories.
"As for any inner meaning or 'message', it has in the intention of the author none. [emphasis mine] It is neither allegorical or topical."He also points out that the crucial chapter "The Shadow of the Past" which lays out a sketch of the story's main premise - that of the power of the ring and need for its destruction - was written prior to 1939 and the outbreak of the Second World War. In any event, by his own words, Tolkien was no fan of allegory. As he continues in the Forward:
"I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author".In other words, if readers finds aspect of the story applicable to real history then it is a creation of the reader himself, not the author.
As my friend, Robert, mentions in the comments below, the story in actuality is not nearly as applicable to World War II as one might think. Tolkien explains:
"The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion. If it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, than certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dur would not have been destroyed but occupied. Saruman, failing to get possession of the Ring, would in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth. In that conflict both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves."It may sound like I'm picking nits here but I don't mind if someone likes to compare the Council of Elrond to the United Nations. However, I can't stand it when they insist that such a comparison originates with Tolkien. Grrrrrrrr.
Anyway, let's turn now to the Prologue. The Prologue is necessary for two reasons:
- To bring the reader up to speed if he has not read The Hobbit, and
- To clarify some continuity issues caused by the first publication of that work which subsequently led to its revision
It is here that Tolkien gives a little back story to the creation of the Shire, the culture of the Hobbits, their general rules of living and their lack of desire to venture out into the larger world around them. The Shire is a pastoral and idyllic society that soon enough will be jolted by major events. But Tolkien begins his epic tale from the point of view of the Hobbits, a race of beings completely at peace and unaware of the danger from which they are sheltered. Perhaps you recall the scene in the Green Dragon from the Extended Edition of Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring where Ted Sandyman gives a warning to Frodo, Sam and the Old Gaffer: "Well, it's none of our concern what goes on beyond our borders. Keep your nose out of trouble, and no trouble will come to you."
This is the setting into which we enter when we at last arrive at the "long-expected party" in Chapter One.
The other bit of housekeeping that Tolkien deals with is the finding of the Ring. The Ring itself is the linchpin of the entire story and the tale of how it came into Bilbo's possession is critical. However, once the story of Gollum and the riddle game underneath the Misty Mountains is told Tolkien makes a clarification that clears up an inconsistency with the original version of The Hobbit. When the author's first book was published, the story fleshed out in the fifth chapter, "Riddles In The Dark", was much different that the version that appeared in versions published after The Lord of the Rings.
In the original story, while Bilbo does find the Ring and when he encounters Gollum the stakes of the riddle game are quite different. Gollum promises a "present" to Bilbo if he wins - intending that present to be his Ring. When Bilbo does win - on a technicality of course - a disappointed Gollum agrees to give over the Ring but is embarrassed to discover he cannot find it (because Bilbo already has it). As a consolation prize, Gollum agrees to show Bilbo the way out of the Mountains.
In the Prologue, Tolkien explains to the reader that this version was what Bilbo told to the dwarves and Gandalf and still remains in early versions of the tale (as supposedly written by Bilbo in the Red Book of Westmarch). The real version - he says - is the more malevolent one in which Gollum intends to kill Bilbo using the Ring and curses Baggins as a thief for stealing his "precious".
But the change from the original story does serve a purpose as it lays the foundation for a better understanding of the nature of the Ring's power. The fact that Bilbo lied about the finding of the Ring to his companions illustrates how the desire for the Ring corrupts those who possess it. Bilbo Baggins, a normally honest hobbit, not only resorted to hiding the truth about the Ring but probably rationalized to himself that it was in fact a present from Gollum. He was not really a thief, after all. Tolkien states, in fact, that Gandalf did not believe Bilbo's original story and found it strange enough to begin to take an interest in the Ring. This would begin the wizard's inquiry into its history which led him to his eventual discovery that it was the One Ring.
Needless to say, the hold that the Ring had on Gollum led to his pursuit of it which in turn will lead to his capture in Mordor. The two words that Sauron's minions are able to torture out of him are "Shire" and "Baggins" - which are the only two pieces of information related to the Ring's whereabouts that the Nazgul are able to use in hunting for the Ring. And the rest is history.
One other matter of note is included at the end of the Prologue, in smaller typeset, discusses the evolution of the Shire records. Throughout the passage, there are references to people and events that a new reader would not recognize. This obviously serves as an explanation for the material that is included at the end in the Appendices. Tolkien lays out a bit of the history of the Red Book, how it was copied and the materials preserved to become the book we all know and love today. Having already mentioned Meriadoc Brandybuck and his study of the history of pipe-weed, the author makes mention of the following characters: Master Samwise (Gamgee), Thain Peregrin (Pippin), King Elessar (Aragorn), Steward Faramir, Celeborn and Galadriel. There are also references to Rohan, Gondor and the remaining for some time of Elrond's sons in Rivendell after Elrond departed over the sea. Returning readers share a unique perspective here because of their familiarity with the fates of these characters who have not yet been introduced.
So now that we're all up to speed, we can "jump right in" to Chapter One...