When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton. (p. 21)
Summary: I'll divide the story by its six parts, and use the titles, that Tolkien had originally intended when trying to get the work published, and then just pick out one or two things from each on which to comment. One advantage of trying to summarize the book this way is that it makes very clear just how much story there is to this story.
Book I: The Ring Sets out
After Bilbo passes his ring to his nephew Frodo, Gandalf, having long suspected that there was something important, and dangerous, about the ring, establishes that it is the ruling Ring of Sauron, which he made to control the rings that he had helped the Elves make in order to preserve the good of Middle Earth. However, when Gandalf does not return as expected, Frodo sets out without him, closely pursued by the Black Riders seeking it, accompanied by Merry, Pippin, Sam, and Strider, and eventually reaches Rivendell.
The book is primarily structured by the mystery of what happened to Gandalf, but one of the most notable features of it is the interaction with Tom Bombadil, which many readers find somewhat jarring. The reason for Bombadil narratively, of course, is that Tolkien needs an upstep to move from the parochial world of the hobbits to the more epic stage and, later, a downstep to move back. In The Hobbit, the trolls serve as this upstep/downstep point in the story, but The Lord of the Rings needs at least a larger upstep. Bombadil ended up fulfilling this function, of course, because Tolkien originally had difficulty figuring out how to start the tale, and Bombadil already existed in a published form, in some poems, and so was available to play the part. Once he was in, there was not really much to replace him; Bombadil jars some readers precisely because he sits exactly at the uncanny line between the hobbitish and the non-hobbitish. He is higher and remoter than the hobbits, but not so high and remote as, say, Glorfindel. But the Bombadil scenes do much more than this. I was struck this reading at how much Bombadil sets up for the rest of the story. First, much of this phase of the tale ends up smoothing the way for later things: Lórien and Fangorn are both easily believed because of what we have already seen in the Old Forest; the Barrow-wights show us that the dead can have power, preparing us for the Paths of the Dead; and it is from Tom that we first hear of the Rangers and their relations to the kings of old, and have the presentiment of Aragorn. Moreover, and often not sufficiently remarked, while Tom does not leave his domain, he plays an integral role in the culmination of events, since the blade Merry uses to wound the Witch-King is precisely the one given to him by Tom, and was only able to do the damage it did because it was a blade forged long ago in the wars of the North against the Witch-King.
Book II: The Ring Goes South
In Rivendell the hobbits find Gandalf. A Council is held to determine what to do with the Ring, at which we learn the reason for Gandalf's delay: the wizard Saruman is a traitor, and Gandalf had to escape his clutches. It is decided that the Ring must be destroyed in secret in the only place it can be, Mount Doom in Mordor, and when Frodo volunteers, a fellowship of Nine are chosen to go with him, at least as far as they can: Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Aragorn, Boromir of Gondor, Gimli son of Gloin, and Legolas. The Nine nearly fail at the first task they must achieve, crossing the mountains in secret, but, all other options having failed, they proceed through the Mines of Moria, once stronghold of the Dwarves, but long since abandoned at the coming of a great and terrible evil. In Moria they find Orcs, and worse, the very evil itself that had forced the Dwarves to flee, and Gandalf falls at the Bridge of Khazad-Düm in order to make it possible for the rest to escape. The remaining members of the Fellowship reach the forest-kingdom of Lothlórien, where they meet Galadriel, who tests their hearts and gives them gifts for their journey. Afterwards, Boromir gives in to the temptation of the Ring, attempting to take it from Frodo, and although he repents of his fall, his action breaks the company, as Frodo and Sam flee East on their own.
The Fellowship of the Ring is more scattered than the rest of the tale, almost of necessity, since it is the part of the story that has to pull together its very disparate elements into something that can work in a unified way. But "The Bridge of Khazad-Düm" is, I think, one of the best chapters of the entire tale. There are certain key points at which the story rises to its highest heights -- Helm's Deep, Isengard, Cirith Ungol, Minas Tirith, Mount Doom -- but Moria is the first, the point at which the story ceases to be merely an enjoyable adventure and begins to become something epic and unforgettable.
Book III: The Treason of Isengard
Boromir dies trying to save Merry and Pippin from a band of Orcs, who then carry them off toward the West. Thus Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas must make the hard choice which hobbits to help, and they go West into Rohan, where we get the first introduction to the Rohirrim. Merry and Pippin, meanwhile, manage to escape and meet Treebeard, the Shepherd of the Trees, and by giving him new information about Saruman provide the last straw that will start a landslide that Saruman will regret. The other three, still pursuing Merry and Pippin, come to Gandalf, who has died and returned. (Interestingly, reading about Tolkien's early drafts and notes, this seems to have been something Tolkien planned as soon as he had Gandalf fall in Moria: Gandalf too needed an upstep.) Proceeding to Edoras, the courts of the Rohirrim, Gandalf rouses King Théoden to his proper responsibilities, and the Rohirrim prepare for war against Saruman in Isengard. At the ancient fortress of Helm's Deep, they are besieged by Saruman's army of orcs and with great difficulty fight them off when Gandalf brings reinforcements and, more mysteriously, a new and strange wood appears on the battlefield. At Isengard, they find that the Ents have taken all of Isengard except the central tower of Orthanc itself; and meeting up with Merry and Pippin again, we learn the the wood was sent by the Ents. At Isengard, they come into possession of a palantír, an ancient seeing stone, and Pippin out of curiosity looks into it. As Sauron will now suspect they have the Ring, and will therefore move much more quickly, Gandalf rushes to Minis Tirith ahead of the Rohirrim, taking Pippin with him so that he will not be tempted again.
It is with this book, I think, that the characters really begin to enter into their own; the division of the company means that they, and especially the hobbits, are seen in more detail than they otherwise would be, and it will all for later remixings to show further lights of their characters. While we only get a little more of Boromir, he has his chance to show that there was more to him than his failure might suggest. At this point we have three groups: Frodo and Sam, Merry and Pippin, and Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas. Gandalf rejoins the latter three and will be the means of their reuniting with Merry and Pippin. Then Gandalf and Pippin go to Gondor; Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas will take the Paths of the dead; and Merry will be with the Rohirrim. The Battle of the Pelennor will reunite the six. After the fall of the Dark Tower, they will all be reunited. Then the non-hobbits slowly break away, with Gandalf, at the last, breaking off at the Old Forest and the hobbits re-entering the Shire and dealing with the problems there. In a work with so many characters, this is the right way to handle them all.
Book IV: The Ring Goes East
Frodo and Sam meet up with Gollum, or Smeagol, who has been following them for a long time, waiting for an opportunity to seize the Ring. They uneasily join forces and Smeagol becomes their guide, as Smeagol is not yet in a position to take the Ring and none of the three wants the Ring to fall into the hands of the orcs or other minions of Sauron. When it is clear that they cannot enter Mordor through the great gate of the Morannon without getting caught, but Frodo intends to do it anyway, Smeagol prevaricates and promises to lead them by another way. They travel through Ithilien to reach it, where they meet Boromir's brother Faramir, who discovers that they have the Ring but succeeds in resisting its temptation where his brother failed by refusing to consider it an option for resisting Sauron and, indeed, refusing even to look at it. He warns them about the entrance into Mordor Smeagol has promised them; it is Cirith Ungol, and is a place of dark and terrible rumor, but, having no options, when they leave Faramir, they continue anyway. There in Cirith Ungol is Shelob, the last great descendant of Ungoliant, spinning her webs; Smeagol abandons them, hoping to scavenge the Ring when they are dead. They escape, but Frodo is bitten and there are orcs all about. Sam, thinking that Frodo is dead, takes on the role of Ring-bearer; Frodo is captured, and Sam learns too late that Shelob's poison keeps her prey alive. Frodo is in the hands of the enemy, and Sam is left outside.
One of the interesting features of this part of the tale is Sam, who is shown both in his strengths and in his weaknesses -- and, indeed, his primary strength, his loyalty to Frodo, in many ways is the source of his weaknesses. The particularly notable one is a what-if -- Sam is perpetually suspicious of Smeagol, and he is right, but how much of his being right is due to his having been so suspicious in the first place? Smeagol's goodwill toward Frodo is sincere, although not enough to counter his obsession with the Ring; but Sam, overprotective of Frodo, keeps tramping into the middle of it. (One thing I also caught this time that I don't know that I had before is that the story, in passing, makes clear why Smeagol reacted so badly to Sam's charge that he was sneaking: the orcs, who of course, had been involved in Smeagol's previous torture by Sauron, also refer to him as the Sneak. And this sums the problem: Sam's behavior toward Smeagol, while driven by protectiveness rather than malice, and restrained by Frodo, is in some ways a little like the behavior of the orcs.) But we also, of course, see Sam rising to the occasion when it especially matters.
Book V: The War of the Ring
At Minas Tirith, Gandalf and Pippin meet with Denethor, the Ruling Steward, who is a man of great intelligence, pride, and force of will, and also clearly someone who does not get along with Gandalf. Pippin in memory of Boromir pledges his service to Gondor, and Minas Tirith is in a state of preparation for the blow that will fall from Sauron, always with the same problem: they do not have the numbers, even when help starts to arrive, because Sauron's lines of strategy cover everything from the Lonely Mountain in the North to the Harad in the South, and a significant number of Gondor's most prepared forces are menaced by corsairs from lands controlled by Sauron. Meanwhile, Rohan receives Gondor's plea for help, and begins to prepare, but Aragorn foresees that Minas Tirith will need more help at great speed, and resolves not to wait for the Rohirrim but to travel the Paths of the Dead to receive the help of the Oathbreakers, who long ago were cursed to remain until they fulfilled the oath to fight Sauron that they had broken. He does this despite Éowyn, Théoden's daughter begging him not to go. Gimli and Legolas go with him. Merry, however, who has sworn himself to the service of Rohan is nearly left behind by Théoden, but he is smuggled along.
In Gondor, battle comes. Early on, Faramir is gravely wounded, and Denethor goes mad, trying to burn himself and Faramir alive. Pippin seeks out Gandalf, who is in the battlefield, about to face the Witch-King; but that battle is deferred when the Rohirrim arrive. They had not only ridden at great speed, they had taken a shortcut, and, with the unexpected help of the Wild Men of the Woods are able to evade the orcs who are set to watch for them. The Witch-King deals with Théoden himself but is slain by Éowyn and Merry. Aragorn arrives, having defeated the corsairs and brought the full force of Gondor in his wake, thus bringing the grim and devastating battle to a close. Gandalf and Pippin stop Denethor from killing Faramir, but are unable to stop Denethor from killing himself. Aragorn's new forces are enough to replenish the city, but they have not dealt with more than a fraction of Sauron's forces, and more will surely come. They therefore follow a plan of distraction, in the hope that they can mislead Sauron into thinking they have the Ring and thereby draw his attention, giving the Ring-bearer time to destroy it. Leaving behind a reinforced Minas Tirith, they take a force to the Morannon and challenge Sauron on his very doorstep. A great battle begins, and they prepare to be crushed; Pippin is knocked unconscious, and the last thing he hears is, "The Eagles are coming!"
On this reading, I found myself considerably more sympathetic to Denethor than I usually am. He is a man under a constant strain of resisting a power greater than he is, and whose responsibilities as Steward mean that he must endanger and sacrifice his own sons if necessary. It does not help that he knows Gandalf comes with someone who has some claim on the throne, and from his proud perspective it must seem that all the sacrifice that he must make, and that he must have others make, has no end other than his own failure. Either he will lose to Sauron, or he will be supplanted; in either case the end of the reign of the Stewards will be due to him. Indeed, what seems to break him is that having lost Boromir, and apparently guaranteed to lose Faramir, he looks into the palantír and is faced with apparently indisputable proof that it was all for nothing. One of the grave mistakes of the movies was in failing to show Denethor as a great man. In reality, he is an extraordinary one. In another realm, he would be king. But in Gondor he rules only as a Steward, and while few if any could fulfill that position so well, he has focused too much on the ruling and not on the stewardship, and in so doing has lost the hope that is essential to the steward's task -- to prepare the way for another. He despairs and gives up the fight on the very return of the King.
Book VI: The End of the Third Age
Sam rescues Frodo and, because Sauron's war has drawn attention elsewhere, they make it to Mount Doom. Frodo, his resistance completely exhausted, claims the Ring as his own, but Smeagol, who has followed attempts to seize it, and, seizing the Ring, Smeagol falls into the fires below, destroying in a moment all things that Sauron had made with the power of the Ring. Frodo and Sam are eventually found by the Eagles and brought to Minas Tirith. Faramir and Éwyn meet in the Houses of Healing; Aragorn is crowned King and marries Arwen, the daughter of Elrond. The rest of the Company begins to return home, but discover that Saruman has escaped Orthanc. And when the hobbits return to the Shire, they find much that is wrong, and have to restore it. The years that come bring prosperity, but Frodo still bears the wounds and the weight of having been the Ring-bearer, and he takes to the Sea and the East with Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel, leaving Middle Earth behind.
Despite the name, the Appendices are, I think, absolutely essential to understanding Book VI. In Book VI we have the end of the Third Age; it is the Appendices that really tell us what that means. In Book VI we have the return of the King; it is the Appendices that bring out the story of this, and make it truly the tale, as Frodo puts it, of THE DOWNFALL OF THE LORD OF THE RINGS AND THE RETURN OF THE KING. In Book VI, we see what happens to Gandalf and Frodo, but it is only the appendices that tell us of what happens to the rest, that Sam, as Ring-bearer, had also earned the right to go West, that Merry and Pippin return to Rohan and Gondor toward the end of their lives, that maybe -- it is said, at least -- that when Legolas took to the Sea, Gimli went with him. And, of course, it is from the Appendices that we get something of the linguistic and philological framework around which the whole story was built.
Favorite Passages: From The Fellowship of the Ring:
At that moment Gandalf lifted his staff, and crying aloud he smote the bridge before him. The staff broke asunder and fell from his hand. A blinding sheet of white flame sprang up. The bridge cracked. Right at the Balrog's feet it broke, and the stone upon which it stood crashed into the gulf, while the rest remained, poised, quivering like a tongue of rock thrust out into emptiness.
With a terrible cry the Balrog fell forward, and its shadow plunged down and vanished. But even as it fell it swung its whip, and the thongs lashed and curled about the wizard's knees, dragging him to the brink. He staggered and fell, grasped vainly at the stone, and slid into the abyss. 'Fly, you fools!' he cried, and was gone. (p. 322)
From The Two Towers:
'Yes, that's so,' said Sam. 'And we shouldn't be here at all, if we'd known more about it before we started. But I suppose it's often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that's not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in teh mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually -- their paths were laid that way, as you pt it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn't. And if they had, we shouldn't know, because they'd have been forgotten....' (p. 696)
From The Return of the King:
Still she did not blench: maiden of the Rohirrim, child of kings, slender but as a steel-blade, fair yet terrible. A swift stroke she dealt, skilled and deadly. The outstretched neck she clove asunder, and the hewn head fell like a stone. Backward she sprang as the huge shape crashed to ruin, vast wings outspread, crumpled on the earth; and with its fall the shadow passed away. A light fell about her, and her hair shone in the sunrise. (p. 824)
Recommendation: Highly Recommended, of course; easily one of the greatest works in English in the twentieth century.
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, HarperCollins (New York: 1995).