|Hardcover, 283 pages|
Published 2000 (originally 1954)
Acquired February 2011
Read January 2013
by J. R. R. Tolkien
Reading The Lord of the Rings book by book is an interesting experience. I have often heard others being (and remember myself being) frustrated by how long it took The Fellowship of the Ring to get out of the Shire. But when you read The Ring Sets Out on its own, it's a novel about the Shire. About living in it, about it being invaded, about leaving it.
"Concerning Hobbits," the prologue, sets us up nicely with a loving description of the Shire, its inhabitants, and its customs. I expected to find this tedious, but in fact I ate it up. From there, we launch into the goings-on of Bilbo's birthday party, which both let us see the splendor of the Shire, foibles and all, but also beings hinting at something coming to upset the Shire. So effective is this setup, I think, that when the Black Riders make their move, it's incongruous: the Shire itself is under threat, and so we too feel threatened.
There's a lot of homeyness in The Ring Sets Out; never before have I read a book so interested in the quality and quantity of its protagonists' baths. Baths, food, sleep, drinks-- these are all the markers of home in The Ring Sets Out, and the Shire itself. Our main characters are all homebodies: adventurous by hobbit standards, but timid and naïve by all others. It's interesting to contrast their journey out of the Shire to the one in The Hobbit; Bilbo makes it all the way to the Lonely Mountain and back in the amount of pages that it takes Frodo to make it just to Bree. But that's because The Hobbit is a novel about the adventure, while The Ring Sets Out is a novel about how difficult it is to leave your home behind. I was always struck as a kid by the sections set in Bree, where our four heroes have literally no one they can trust, and they have no idea how to behave. They feel very alienating as a reader.
The only part where I felt The Ring Sets Out really flags is not the infamous Tom Bombadil segment, but after it; the encounter with him is fine, but immediately after it, the whole incident is repeated! The hobbits are captured by a tree, Tom Bombadil saves them, and they stay the night at his house. Then they leave, are captured by barrow-wights, and Tom saves them again. The only reason that the second capture can even happen is because Tom leaves them for no apparent reason.
The Ring Sets Out ends with Frodo lapsing into unconsciousness, beyond the Shire, beyond Bree, beyond Weathertop, beyond anything Frodo has even heard of. The Shire is far behind, and everything ahead of him is completely unknown...