So, what of Gandalf and Frodo’s long fireside chat in the second chapter of the Lord of the Rings?

The main point of the conversation is to build up to the magnificent question of what to do with the One Ring, now that it has been found.  But building up to there takes some time.  No wonder.  To know what to do with the Ring, one has to know where it came from, and who made it, and how he made it, and why.  Right action in this chapter cannot depend merely on having a good will: it depends on knowing something about the past.  More than something, it depends on knowing the stories of the past.

Gandalf’s “history lesson” to Frodo is a series of stories:  Sauron’s, Isildur’s, Gollum’s, and Bilbo’s.  Isildur, Gollum, and Bilbo are unlikely foils to each other, and the first two are unlikely foils to Frodo, but they were all Ring-bearers, and through the unlikely similarity of their stories Tolkien punches home the deeply corruptive nature of the Ring.

Through the unfolding of the stories, however, Tolkien has a genuinely practical problem before him:  how to keep the attention of a reader through a conversation which, at every moment, is in danger of degenerating to a mere history lesson.  For this reason I think he has Frodo periodically interrupt Gandalf with questions.  The questions move the stories along.  The problem is that… well, Frodo’s questions appear only to do that.

Whenever I encounter a prose conversation in a prose work written after, say, 1800, I instinctively try to read it as a “novel” conversation:  that is, one in which the conversation has its principle of motion in itself, in which each speaker’s reactions to each spoken sentence arise directly from his unique character in the story.  From the fine art of crafting such interchanges, for example, arises the lasting fame of that mistress craftswoman of conversation, Jane Austen.  It is simply impossible that anything Elizabeth Bennett says could be mistaken for anything her sister Jane says, it being in fact impossible that anything Lizzy says should not be distinctively and intrinsically Lizzyan.

Not so with Tolkien, I fear.  Nothing Frodo says has any distinctive “Frodo-ness” about it.  Tolkien has him speak, not to reveal his character, but to move the story along.  Even Gandalf’s role in the conversation is not the role of a conversationalist but a story-teller.  For Tolkien, the Story is all-absorptive.

What to make of this?  If I thought Tolkien were writing a novel, I would call it deficient on this point.  But perhaps that is the key.  The novel form and the prose style have been associated for so long that perhaps a non-novel in prose would seem like a contradiction.  But if Tolkien were really attempting to write in a different genre in prose, would that other genre really derive its life-blood from good conversations the way that a novel would?

Thomas Malory, as I recall, was not great on the point of conversation either.