Dense with detail, the Prologue is an extended introduction to the history and customs of the race known as the Hobbits. According to Tolkien’s fiction, their story has been passed down to us in the form of a travel narrative called the Red Book of Westmarch, written by a Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins who journeyed to the East and returned to tell about his trip. Hobbits are small, portly, good-natured, skillful at crafts and gardening, and have impressive appetites. Most Hobbits live in the Shire, an area of Middle-earth to which they migrated from the East more than 1,000 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings take place. They were shy even in ancient times, when the events of The Lord of the Rings occur, but were originally a bit more active than they are today. Hobbits do not wear shoes, as their feet are tough and leathery and covered on top with curly hair. They are provincial in outlook, for the most part uninterested in the wide world. Their sole contribution to culture has been the introduction of pipe tobacco. They have remained almost entirely on the margins of historical events that have occurred since their migration. However, they can demonstrate surprising toughness and courage when called upon.
The first Hobbit to make a name for himself in the wider world was Bilbo Baggins, author of the travel writings on which The Lord of the Rings is supposedly based. As described in The Hobbit, Bilbo, at the suggestion of the great Wizard, Gandalf the Grey, went off with the dwarf Thorin Oakenshield in search of a lost treasure. Along the way, escaping from Orcs—a vicious race of squat, swarthy creatures—Bilbo was lost for a time in the mines under the Misty Mountains. Groping in the dark, he stumbled upon a ring on the ground. The owner of the ring, a miserable creature called Gollum, lived in the mines. When the two met, Gollum challenged Bilbo to a riddle contest. If Gollum won, he would get to kill Bilbo and eat him; if Bilbo won, Gollum would have to show Bilbo the way out of the mines. In the end Bilbo won, though his final riddle—“What have I got in my pocket?”—was not, in fact, much of a riddle.
However, Gollum, when he discovered that Bilbo had the ring, flew into a rage. In fleeing Gollum, Bilbo accidentally discovered that the ring made its wearer invisible, and he used this power to escape. Curiously, ever after, in recounting the story of how he came by the ring, Bilbo lied, saying that Gollum had offered it to him as a present. Only when pointedly questioned by the skeptical Gandalf did Bilbo reveal the truth.
Tolkien initiates us into the world of Middle-earth in a sophisticated way. The events and background of The Lord of the Rings are not simply narrated to us by a detached storyteller who conceived them in his imagination. Instead, the narrator presents his tale as a historical record based upon a variety of different sources: chronicle histories written from the perspectives of both Elves and Men, folklore and oral tradition, and the narrator’s meticulous knowledge of the language and customs of the peoples he describes. The narrator assembles all of these disparate materials to create a history that is broader in scope than the history of any one race or people.
We may be surprised to learn that The Hobbit, Tolkien’s earlier novel, is actually one of the narrator’s archival sources, supposedly a part of a larger book we were unaware of called the Red Book of Westmarch. Although The Hobbit itself is narrated in the manner of a children’s book, we are now invited to believe that the earlier novel was discovered, not created. In presenting the Hobbits’ tale in this way, Tolkien follows in the footsteps of many great works of Western literature, such as Don Quixote, whose author, Cervantes, pretended to have discovered the manuscript of the novel and published it. There is thus a long tradition of works that claim not to be authored by their authors. One result of this device is that the characters’ world and the readers’ world are brought closer together. If Bilbo’s narrative found its way into our everyday lives, then perhaps we could find our way into Bilbo’s world. Although a huge historical gap separates us from him, still we feel that the only difference between the Hobbits’ reality and our own is the intervention of a few millennia. The earth he walked on is the same earth we walk on, and the closeness heightens our identification with Bilbo, Frodo, and all the other characters we are about to meet.
The characteristics of the Hobbits are first outlined in the Prologue, and we get a surprising portrait of the creatures that we expect to be the heroes of this narrative. They are hardly noble or majestic in appearance or lifestyle. They are short and dumpy, and most of them live in holes underground. They like food and leisure more than we would expect from the leaders of a mission to rid the world of evil. Our first introduction to Bilbo, recalling events first narrated in The Hobbit, underscores this impression, since he is somewhat disappointingly presented. He is not busily arranging his affairs or impressing his peers with his strength of character; tather, he is lost in some mine shafts. Yes, he is on a quest—for treasure—but he is misdirected and unable to find his way. Yet there is a long literary tradition behind this sort of introduction as well. Dante opens The Divine Comedy with a scene of himself lost in the woods and unable to orient himself, and his perplexity at the beginning only emphasizes the wisdom he gains later when he does find his way in life. There is an innocence in Bilbo that his clueless demeanor reflects, and that may indicate a capacity for moral heroism. Honesty and candor may matter more than strength or swiftness.
The confrontation with Gollum, though it seemed to be only one of many colorful episodes in The Hobbit, now turns out to be central to The Lord of the Rings. On a plot level, Bilbo’s meeting with Gollum explains the way in which the all-powerful Ring of Sauron came into the possession of the undistinguished Hobbit race in the first place. But on a symbolic level, it also represents the standoff between Hobbit simplicity and alien deception, as the insidious Gollum tries to trick Bilbo with his riddle wager. Bilbo is unaccustomed to verbal complexity, and he has certainly never played a game on which his life depended. He believes in simple deeds, and merely wants to get out of the caves. With all Gollum’s cleverness, it seems that Bilbo is fated to lose. But we get a glimpse of the hidden virtues of Hobbit straightforwardness when Bilbo’s riddle—“What have I got in my pocket?”—stumps Gollum precisely because it is so simple. It is not a riddle at all, and it infuriates Gollum with its obviousness. Indeed, in the end, Bilbo proves victorious. We see already that the Hobbits’ lack of sophistication or worldly wisdom may actually be an asset to them.