For all my quibbles with Tolkien’s character sketches, I cannot complain about his plot development.  Tolkien is the Artist of the Set Stage.  He is also the Master of Unwinding Events.  Consider, for example, how many allusions to future events are packed into the opening paragraphs of Chapter 1.  We learn right off the bat about Mr. Bilbo Baggins being “well preserved.”  The Gaffer in the Inn characterizes the Old Forest as “a dark bad place.”  The first words out of Sandyman’s mouth (the churlish fellow who will prove the instrument of vile Industrialization later) are slanderous accusations against the dead Mr. and Mrs. Drogo Baggins.  A stranger in the Inn asks about the treasure up in Bag End.  We find out that Sam loves tales and the Gaffer distrusts book-learning and other forms of meddling in affairs that are too high for folk.  (Is this oddly reminisicent of Saruman’s later accusation that the Hobbits are mixed up in matters too great for them?)  And so it goes on.

 

An excellent plot-development-in-miniature is the building up of excitement for the Long-Expected Party.  It spans 6 paragraphs (all of page 34 in my edition).  Tolkien uses an action initiated at Bag End to cause a material effect in the neighborhood to heighten the anticipation of his characters.  Each paragraph is a separate event.  For example: invitations pour out – the post office is snowed under – people say they will certainly come.  Or: the field is covered with poles for tents – the Hobbits wake up the next morning to discover this – the Gaffer stops pretending to work in his garden.  The whole thing reaches its height at the end of paragraph 5, when (appropriately) the preparations are crowned by the creation of an outdoor kitchen and arrival of food services.  Tolkien even says “Excitement rose to its height.”

 

And then—then Tolkien shows how easily he can twitch the reins and alter everything.  The weather clouds over.  The remarkable thing about this paragraph is that it is only 5 sentences long, and Tolkien is still able to take the reader through sudden apprehension, building suspense, the critical moment of anxiety (the middle sentence and the shortest), the twinkle of hope, and the final glorious resolution.  “The sun got up, the clouds vanished, flags were unfurled and the fun began.”

 

It’s the entire Lord of the Rings tale in a nutshell.

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