One of the great accomplishments—and much of the appeal—of The Lord of the Rings is the exhaustive level of detail of the world Tolkien creates. Middle-earth is full of different races and creatures, each with its own customs, language, history, and mythology. The Prologue, with its anthropological tone, has already prepared us for this unfamiliar world. The Prologue’s level of detail—about the Shire’s political structure and layout, as well as the habits of Hobbits—not only imbues everything with an aura of real history, but gives the weight of detail to a tale many readers might at first find too fanciful.
The Shire serves as a perfect jumping-off place for the tale. Like many of us modern readers, Hobbits are suspicious of talk of magic and monsters. The Shire, more than any other place in The Lord of the Rings, feels familiar, and would have been even more familiar for an English audience fifty years ago. With its cozy homes, small gardens and inns, and portly and good-natured farmers, the Shire is an idealized version of the English countryside in which Tolkien grew up. With its sleepy, complacent air and commonsense values, it appears to be on the sidelines of the sweeping battle about to be fought for the Ring. Perhaps most importantly, the Shire eases us into the fantastical landscape of Middle-earth. We, like Frodo and his Hobbit companions, set out into an unknown and mystical wider world from the comfortable confines of the Shire.
The Shire is not merely a quaint countryside steeped with charm. Though it is a comforting place, there is something severely limited—even stifling—in its provincial mindset. Bilbo and Frodo both appear to note this aspect of the Shire. Later, Frodo admits to Gandalf that he has often grown exasperated with the Shire and its inhabitants. Nonetheless, knowing of its existence during his travels is a comfort to Frodo: “I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again.” For all its limits, the Shire and the Hobbits who live in it represent the virtues of simplicity, stability, and determined practicality in the face of the head-spinning events to come.
For readers of The Hobbit, the picture of Bilbo presented in Chapter 1 may come as something of a shock. In The Hobbit, the elder Baggins is a jolly, somewhat bumbling hero, with great charisma and perhaps greater luck—in short, a character about whom we enjoy reading and with whom we long to identify. In The Fellowship of the Ring, however, we see that the many intervening years have changed Bilbo drastically, and not, it appears, for the better. The once-familiar Bilbo, through whose perspective we see virtually every enjoyable minute of The Hobbit, suddenly seems very foreign. Within the larger community of Hobbiton he appears to be an outmoded, odd old individual, and an object of great suspicion among the community. Though Tolkien tells us that the typical Hobbit’s viewpoint is admittedly provincial, the community does appear to have valid concerns about Bilbo. Why does he receive such strange visitors? Why is it that, even at 111 years of age, he has not physically aged at all? Nonetheless, our hopes remain high for Bilbo’s grand birthday celebration—but even that leads to a bit of a letdown when we see how the once-charismatic hobbit quickly loses the audience’s attention even during his short speech.
Tolkien intends the new Bilbo to have exactly this sort of disorienting effect, and the author hints that a large part of this shift in Bilbo’s character may be due to his possession of the mysterious ring for so many years. Whenever the subject of the ring comes up, Bilbo’s behavior becomes strange, unpredictable, and erratic; his words turn defensive and evasive. We learn that Bilbo has kept the ring secret all these years, and we then see that he lies about it and attempts to keep it even after promising to hand it over to Gandalf. We hear Bilbo make the mysterious and perhaps surprising admission that it will, in a way, be a relief finally to be rid of the ring. Together, these elements of the first chapter raise a sense of foreboding about the ring, making us curious as to what exactly the ring is and what role it is to play in the story. Furthermore, as we know that the ring is being passed on to Frodo, we wonder whether it will have the same bizarre effects on this younger Baggins. These suspicions, compounded and made more ominous by Gandalf’s tale in the upcoming chapter, hang over the entirety of the story of The Lord of the Rings. This masterful and subtle use of foreshadowing on Tolkien’s part creates a sense of dread and anticipation, as we wonder and worry whether Frodo will himself fall victim to the ring’s spell. This sense of foreboding expectancy drives the narrative forward, making a very lengthy novel breeze by as we await the answers to questions and issues raised here, in the opening pages.