"The Fellowship of the Ring" Critique: Overrated?
Background and Disclaimers
This is a long and somewhat ranty critique of the Fellowship of the Ring book. It is accompanied by a critical comparison to the Peter Jackson movie adaptation, a link to which can be found at the end of this article. Before I jump into it, I will briefly explain the context of this critique, and give a couple of disclaimers. If you’re going to take the TL;DR (too long; didn't read) approach and scroll down, at least read the disclaimers first.
First off, let me explain the situation I’ve found myself in. Not only had I not read any of the LotR books before this one, but for some reason, I also had not watched any of the LotR movies in a long time. This means I knew the overall story, but my memory of the specifics was vague. The last time I saw them, I was also still too young to really assess the quality of a piece of fiction.
Then a friend of mine, who is a massive LotR fan, gifted me the trilogy of LotR books. When I started reading The Fellowship, I was not as impressed as I expected to be. This led to me wanting to do a full-fledged critique, so I can justify in detail why I’m not quite in love with it. Next to that, I came to the realization of how little I remember about the movies. Thus, I decided that after finishing the book, I would re-watch the movie and compare them. That is how this monstrosity of a critique + adaptation comparison was born.
Disclaimer 1: This is a critique, not a review, so it contains spoilers for the entire book. If you’re thinking of reading the LotR books, here’s my review: If you like lots of immersive world-building and do not mind a slow-paced story, stop reading this and go read the books. And maybe come back to this critique afterward. If you prefer exciting stories and don’t care about history lessons and lengthy descriptions of scenery, pass on the books and stick to the movies. And keep reading if you’re curious about my reasons for saying this.
Disclaimer 2: I’m going to say a lot of negative things about the Fellowship. This does not mean I hate the book. The reason I will be focussing on the negatives is that LotR is already generally accepted to be good, and I agree with this. I’m just warning you that this is not going to be a grand appraisal of our lord and savior Tolkien.
Disclaimer 3: My assessment of the book and movie is obviously subjective. Every judgment made below is purely my opinion, not fact, even if I don’t explicitly say so. I am but a mortal man doomed to die, so it is possible that I misjudged parts of the book or movie, in which case I will reconsider them when new information becomes available.
My Overall Opinion
I’ll state my overall judgment right away. My experience reading The Fellowship has brought me to conclude that Tolkien is an excellent world-builder, but a less-than-stellar storyteller. I don’t think I need to explain the world-builder part; that’s what he’s known for. My reason for calling him a poor storyteller is multifaceted, but all reasons are closely related. I’ll go through them one by one.
I consider this the most forgivable flaw, simply because it’s so subjective. The pacing of the book is glacially slow, especially in the first half. This alone doesn’t make Tolkien a poor storyteller, because it’s mostly a matter of preference, but I definitely would’ve preferred a faster and more focused pace, with fewer descriptions of environments and mundane activities, and more meaningful action and dialogue. I’ll keep this short for now and I’ll talk some more about pacing in the adaptation comparison when I’ll have something to compare it to.
Telling, Not Showing
Tolkien often fails to adhere to the common storytelling rule of “show, don’t tell”. There are lots and lots of dialogue and narration detailing what goes on in Middle Earth at large, but it’s rarely shown to the reader directly.
An example: During the council of Elrond, they speak about how the ring can’t be destroyed by conventional means, but they show no attempt at doing so. Elrond doesn’t even directly mention in what ways they tried to destroy it; he only states that it can’t be destroyed. The reader simply has to take his word for it. To be fair, this makes sense in-character: Elrond knows the Ring can’t be destroyed, so he doesn’t try, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that the rest of the council will take his and Gandalf’s word for it. But the reader is an outsider: they have little reason to take Elrond’s words at face value, other than wanting the story to continue in its intended direction. I’m not saying it’s unreasonable that no attempt to destroy the Ring is shown, but if you compare this scene in the book to the same scene in the movie, the movie version is much more convincing because it shows, loud and clear, that weapons cannot damage the ring. (More on this in the adaptation comparison.)
There will be more examples of this in the next point, which is closely related.
A Lack of Threat
There is very little sense of actual threat in the story. This is closely tied to the first criticism: the characters speak at length about the dangers of their quest, but they are rarely encountered in a meaningful way. Meaningful is the keyword here. They may encounter orcs or Nazgûl, but the encounter isn’t meaningful unless there’s a legitimate and believable risk of defeat. This criticism is very important to me, so I’m going to go into great detail about it. To illustrate the lack of threat that I perceive, I will go through all major hostile parties that appear in the book and explain how I perceive them. (I’m skipping over the barrow-wights and getting back to those later.)
Aside from capturing Gandalf near the beginning, he doesn’t really do anything. He’s repeatedly mentioned as a threat: the fellowship can’t pass through Rohan because it brings them too close to Saruman. Of course, no real indication is given on how powerful he is or how many orcs he commands, so the reader has little reason to actually fear him. His presence is mostly to set up his larger role in the second book.
This is going to be a long one. The Nazgûl are the main villains throughout the first half of the book. Nine undead kings, immortal and tireless, who are feared by everyone who has heard of them. So why are they so incompetent? The hobbits encounter the Nazgûl three times. The first time, there is only one of them, and he retreats when a group of elves approaches. He would’ve clearly been too outnumbered to fight them, so fair enough.
The second time, the hobbits are holed up on Amon Sûl, with only Strider to protect them. Strider temporarily leaves them alone, and five of the Nazgûl show up while he’s gone. Instead of just killing the hobbits and taking the ring, their leader stabs Frodo with a Morgul blade. Strider comes back and scares off the Nazgûl. It’s revealed that Frodo is now poisoned, and when the poison of the Morgul blade kills him, he will turn into a wraith and willingly bring the Ring to Sauron. This is actually a pretty good set-up for conflict. It puts the heroes on a time constraint: they have to reach Rivendell before Frodo succumbs.
But it also comes with some very strange implications about the Nazgûl. For one, why do they flee from Strider? I understand that Aragorn is powerful, but can he really take on five Nazgûl at once? If yes, that puts a real damper on their scariness. To be fair, Strider comments afterward that the Nazgûl probably weren’t expecting resistance, and that they retreated because their main goal of poisoning Frodo was already accomplished. But if we roll with that, it raises another question. If the Nazgûl weren’t expecting Strider to return so quickly, why did they bother poisoning Frodo with the Morgul blade instead of just killing him and taking the Ring themselves? It would’ve been a faster and less risky method of acquiring the Ring.
I guess the Witch King tried to be smart, but instead he comes off an idiot for using subterfuge when direct force would’ve been more effective. If I was the Witch King and I was about to attack the hobbits at Amon Sûl, I would probably tell my undead companions something like this: “Listen up. The hobbits are up there and one of them has the Ring. We kill all the hobbits, search their bodies for the Ring, and then get out before the ranger returns. If he returns early, we fight him. We’re immortal, so the worst he can do is damage our corporeal vessels. Even if we can’t kill him, we might be able to wound him. With the hobbits dead, he’ll have to carry the Ring himself, which will corrupt him. When he’s wounded and corrupted, it’s only a matter of time before we can hunt him down.” Why does the Witch King not employ this rationale? God knows. What I’m saying is, Sauron should give me a call if he’s looking for a better undead servant.
Jokes aside, I can accept that the Witch King might be too blinded by arrogance to employ such crude tactics. It might be justifiable with some of the things we learn about him later on. (I’m talking from my memories of the movies and from some second-hand knowledge I picked up through discussions with LotR fans. I myself am only partway into The Two Towers as I write this.) Even so, a villain who makes poor decisions is still less threatening as a result.
For the sake of being constructive with my criticism, I will propose a hypothetical scenario in which the use of the Morgul Blade would make sense. Imagine if the story had unfolded differently: the Nazgûl were not swept away by the Flood and are still hunting Frodo after the Fellowship has been formed. The hobbits are now surrounded by Gandalf, Aragorn, Boromir, Legolas, and Gimli. No doubt, this is a force too powerful for the Nazgûl to take head-on. So they must devise a plan to obtain the Ring. Sneaking into the camp at night to kill Frodo might work, but they probably wouldn’t be able to loot the Ring off his body and escape with it before being mobbed by the rest of the fellowship. So instead, they wait until the fellowship is off-guard, charge in to stab Frodo with the Morgul blade, then pull away before the whole fellowship can get up in arms. Now it’s just a matter of time before Frodo succumbs, becomes a wraith and brings the Ring to them. There are doubts, of course: the fellowship still has time to search for a healer, so their plan might fail. But in this case, it really is preferable over a direct confrontation.
Of course, I’m not saying that the above is how it should have gone. The entire story would have to be restructured to make this happen. I’m merely presenting it to make the following point: in which scenario does the use of the Morgul blade make more sense, the one I just described or the canon one from the book?
Let’s move on from that rant and towards the final appearance of the Nazgûl. As the group approaches the House of Elrond, all nine of the Nazgûl emerge. Frodo makes a run for it on Glorfindel’s horse and crosses the river into Elrond’s domain. The riders almost catch him but get swept away by the Flood when they try to cross. This scene is fine in and of itself. The Nazgûl were bested by a powerful sorcerer on his own domain; it’s only reasonable.
What I do want to point out about this, is that even when all nine come out in force, we still get no real indication of their power. Frodo’s companions are powerless to stop them, not necessarily because they lack the strength, but because they’re on foot and the riders are on horseback, so they can’t catch up to them. When Frodo later wakes up in Rivendell, Gandalf tells him that even Aragorn and Glorfindel together would not have been able to stop all nine of the Nazgûl. And yet, I couldn’t help but question that statement, seeing as Aragorn alone had succeeded in warding off five of them earlier. It’s another case of telling but not showing.
Imagine if a slight change was made to the scene, so that Aragorn and Glorfindel do try to stop the riders, but get ridden down and injured. That way, Gandalf wouldn’t even need to tell Frodo how powerless they were, and the reader gets a fright from thinking that Strider might’ve been killed. Sure, it’s reckless to fight a mounted rider on foot, but it’s a dire situation. I’m sure Aragorn would rather risk being trampled than let the Ring fall into Sauron’s hand right then and there. It wouldn’t even hinder the story; they spend quite a long time in Rivendell, so Aragorn would have enough time to recover from his wounds before they set out again.
This scene concludes the role of the Nazgûl in The Fellowship, with the premise that they’ll undoubtedly return later. Unfortunately, they’ve been unable to really demonstrate the supposed power they wield. They come off as no more dangerous than any armed rider, so the reader is left wondering how much of a threat they’ll pose next time.
Actually, there is one more implied appearance of a Nazgûl riding a fellbeast, though it isn’t directly seen. It appears as a shadowy presence flying overhead during the night-time orc attack at the Anduin river. It is soon shot down by Legolas, which causes the accompanying orcs to retreat, and is not seen again. Again, it doesn’t really help their supposedly threatening image.
I think it goes without saying that orcs are kind of pushovers. Even so, I’ll admit they aren’t handled that poorly. There are two orc encounters in the book: one in Moria and one while travelling down the Anduin river. Both times the fellowship escapes fairly easily and mostly unharmed (Gandalf’s demise wasn’t due to the orcs), but it’s mostly due to circumstance. The orcs weren’t able to reach the fellowship in full force, blocked off by the twisting tunnels of Moria and by the Great River respectively. In the case of Moria, it was clear that the fellowship would’ve been wiped out if the full might of the orcs had come down upon them. Really, this is par for the course as far as faceless enemy goons go. They don’t really get to exercise their power, but their potential threat is evident enough to be taken seriously.
If you’ve only seen the movies, you might wonder why I’m not mentioning the Uruk-hai attack at the end. It’s because that doesn’t happen in this book. It happens at the start of the Two Towers, and Peter Jackson ported it over into The Fellowship. More on that in the adaptation comparison.
I do feel the need to point out an amusing instance of plot armour. During both of the aforementioned orc attacks, the fellowship gets pelted with arrows. In both cases, only a single arrow actually lands, and in both cases, it hits Frodo, who of course is protected by his mithril shirt. What are the chances that with a total of eight or nine targets being shot at, Frodo is the only one to get hit, both times? Either he’s an arrow magnet, or Tolkien realized that Frodo is the only character who can take a hit without being severely injured. I guess he at least tried not to go full plot armour by not having all the arrows miss all the time, but it’s definitely jarring when the exact same scenario repeats itself.
The Balrog AKA Durin’s Bane
Okay, I can’t crap on this guy. He sent the entire fellowship running for their lives and took out the wisest and most powerful of their members. That’s a proper threat if I’ve ever seen one, and generally a cool chapter of the book. Unfortunately, the fact that it took a demigod to put any real dent in the fellowship further reinforces the precedent that the lesser forces of evil aren’t all that dangerous.
Tom Motherf*cking Bombadil
This is the part where the critique might turn into an angry rant. I hate that Tom Bombadil exists. His chapters are the worst ones in the book, and the mere existence of his character is detrimental to the story as a whole. The fact that three chapters (VI, VII, VIII) are dedicated to him almost got me to quit reading the book entirely. There is so much wrong with his character and the chapters that surround him, I don’t even know where to begin. I guess I’ll start with the most forgivable flaw and work my way up.
For one, these chapters are filler in the purest sense of the word. The chapters before this, which revolve around Frodo’s departure from the Shire, could also be seen as fillerish, but they’re definitely building up to something. Bombadil’s chapters have absolutely nothing to do with the main story. They could be cut out completely and it would change nothing except the length of the book. And I guess the hobbits wouldn’t have any weapons, but that’s easily solved. In the movie, they get some swords from Strider, and I don’t think anyone questions that.
Now, I’m generally intolerant of filler. I suppose some people like filler because they simply enjoy getting more content, but I value my time so I rarely appreciate having it wasted on something frivolous. But what makes this filler worse is that it follows directly on another very uneventful part of the book. After the first two chapters, which contain Bilbo’s departure and Frodo taking up the Ring, the reader has to get through a total of six chapters (about 90 pages) waiting for Frodo to get his ass to Bree and for the real story to happen. Can you tell that I’m salty about this?
The barrow wights
Secondly, let’s talk about the story arc surrounding the barrow wights. This is the most strangely amateuristic part of the book. Its structure and tone are so out-of-place, it seems like Tolkien’s nephew wrote a chapter of fanfiction and pasted it into the canon story. To summarize: Bombadil teaches the hobbits a chant with which they can call him when they need help. The next day, the hobbits depart, and immediately get captured by a bunch of undead spirits. They are nearly killed, but Frodo summons Tom Bombadil, who easily defeats the wights and ends the curse of the barrow downs.
Wait, what? When Bombadil tells the hobbits about the chant, I started theorizing about how this would come into play later in the story. Maybe a few chapters later, maybe in a later book. My interest was piqued by a potentially story-relevant moment that isn’t in the movies. But no, they make use of it immediately, in an event that is just as irrelevant to the story as the rest of Bombadil’s chapters. The Chekov’s gun wasn’t even loaded yet and already it’s been fired. Not to mention, how were the wights even there? If it was so easy for Bombadil to lift the curse, why didn’t he do so long ago? It’s implied to be an ancient curse, and Bombadil seems to have lived there for a long time. Seriously, who wrote this chapter and what did they do to the real Tolkien?
It’s funny, really. My sister read the book before me, and after I finished reading it, she had to ask me whether the scene with the barrow wights actually happened. She thought she might be misremembering, or that this scene might have been the result of some fever dream. That’s how out-of-place it comes across.
Bombadil’s interaction with the Ring
This point is the most insulting to me. In chapter VII, Frodo gives the Ring to Bombadil. Bombadil tries it on, but is completely unaffected. Then Frodo puts on the Ring, and Bombadil is able to see him despite the invisibility the Ring provides. This indicates that Bombadil is something wholly different from any being we’ve seen before. If even the likes of Gandalf and Galadriel can’t handle the Ring without being corrupted, Tom Bombadil must be something unbelievably ancient and powerful. This is later mentioned during the council of Elrond, when someone suggests giving the Ring to Bombadil. The response to this is that Bombadil wouldn’t understand the significance, and would likely lose it. Even if he didn’t, Sauron would continue growing in power and would eventually conquer the rest of the world, even without the use of the Ring.
I will admit that the way I’ve written it out here, it sounds pretty interesting. I can imagine that if I was truly convinced of the power of Sauron and the dangers of the Ring, this scene might lift my spirits and remind me that it isn’t all grimdark in Middle Earth. I assume that’s part of the intention of Bombadil’s chapters. But as stated earlier, the book never managed to convince me of this in the first place, neither before nor after Bombadil’s chapters. This scene just ends up being a slap in the face to someone who is already struggling to take the conflict seriously. “Oh, you’re starting to buy into the stakes of this story? Let me inform you that there exists another force of good in the world, older and possibly more powerful than Sauron, who does nothing to stop Sauron purely because he doesn’t feel like it.” That’s what I get for having the insolence of expecting the book to maintain a genuinely threatening tone for any amount of time.
Thankfully, there’s a silver lining to the fact that these chapters are so disconnected from the rest of the book. It makes it easy to exclude them from my headcanon and simply act like they didn’t happen. It’s a saving grace because my final verdict of the book would’ve probably been more negative if my opinion of Bombadil wasn’t so easy to set aside.
I’ll say it once again: despite all the crap I just gave it, The Fellowship is not a bad book. But I don’t consider it a masterpiece either, not by a longshot. I suppose it was a great achievement back in the day. Tolkien basically became the father of a whole genre of fiction, which back then didn’t really exist in the way it does now. But I feel that a novel needs to be judged not only in its historical context but also for the value it holds today, in a world where many genres of fantasy are readily available through many different forms of media.
From that perspective, I would say The Fellowship is a 7/10. (I might’ve given it a 6/10 if Tombadil’s chapters were still fresh in my mind.) It’s kind of like the first draft of a really good story. Tolkien laid the groundwork with his world-building, then Peter Jackson and his writers refined it into something great. That something is the movie adaptation. I’m sure some people will call me a heretic for claiming that the movie is better than the book, but to me, it stands squarely above its source material. And I’ll tell you why in my next article, the Fellowship of the Ring Adaptation Comparison.
In the meanwhile, do you agree or disagree with my assessment? Is there any important information I overlooked? Please let me know in the comments.