Wednesday, April 3, 2019


So, one of the little puzzles about THE LORD OF THE RINGS I've never seen addressed involves the Synopses that appear at the beginning of the second and third volume (omitted from the one-volume editions, I was surprised to learn).

The relevant passage tells how FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING ends
with "the fall of Boromir to the lure of the Ring; with the escape and
disappearance of Frodo and his servant Samwise; and the scattering
of the remainder of the Fellowship by a sudden attack of orc-soldiers,
some in the service of the Dark Lord of Mordor, some of the traitor
Saruman of Isengard. The Quest of the Ring-bearer seemed already 
overtaken by disaster" (TT.9-10)

What's remarkable is the passage I've marked for emphasis. Here in the summary of Volume I we are told things the reader could not learn by reading FELLOWSHIP, indeed not until the opening pages of Volume II:  that the Fellowship has been attacked by orcs. This information is not within the last chapter of the previous book, which ends with the Fellowship scattering, running off in all directions. And it's later yet, though still in the first chapter of TWO TOWERS, that the survivors figure out the orc-band has divided loyalties between Mordor and Isengard.

I think it's extraordinary that Tolkien wd include in a summary information not contained in the thing being summarized (in this case, Volume I of LotR).  Thinking the synopsis might have been put together by someone at Allen & Unwin, years ago I wrote to Rayner Unwin with a query, asking who had written these synopses: someone at A&U or Tolkien himself. Mr Unwin kindly replied, saying that it was of course Tolkien himself.*

So there it is: Tolkien's synopsis contains information not in the thing being synopsized,

Given how carefully Tolkien seeds information within his tale and how carefully he doles it out when the time comes, I have to conclude this is entirely deliberate on his part, I assume to heighten the drama of the second volume's in medias res opening.

I suspect this has gotten such little attention because most of us come to TWO TOWERS fresh from having just finished FELLOWSHIP and plunge right in, having no need for a synopsis of the book we just finished devouring for the dozenth time. In any case, obviously this is a minor point (or otherwise I wd have seen somebody else mention it in all these years). But it remains a bit of a puzzle, to me at least.

--John R.
current reading: Barlow's COLUMBIAD (1807). finished with the poem and on to the (extensive) endnotes; the author's efforts to explain what he's talking about take up about 20% of the whole.

*as confirmation of this, Archivist Bill Fliss points out to me that Marquette holds Tolkien's typescript of both pieces: 3/5/26 (TT) and 3/7/49 (RK).


N.E. Brigand said...

I've raised this question a few times, as for example in 2007 in a review of Amy Sturgis's article on The Lord of the Rings in the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia:,_The_-_Amy_H._Sturgis

Where I wrote the following:

"However, for me, the most interesting mistake comes when Sturgis’s synopsis reaches the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, where, she writes, 'the company is scattered by an Orc attack'. Actually, that event is not presented in FotR, which concludes with the departure of Frodo and Sam as the other members of the Fellowship still search for them (though 'there seemed to be cries in the woods behind'). Here Sturgis might be remembering Peter Jackson’s film of FotR, which appropriates Boromir’s death from The Two Towers (to the satisfaction of many viewers), but it is most curious that Tolkien himself twice makes the same assertion: first in his long letter of 1951 to Milton Waldman, where he says that the 'book ends with the death of Boromir fighting the Orcs'; and then in the synopses of FotR that appear at the beginning of The Two Towers and The Return of the King, where he writes that the first volume ends with 'the scattering of the remainder of the Fellowship by a sudden attack of orc-soldiers'."

I followed up with a little more discussion of Tolkien's synopses here in 2008:

Clive Shergold said...

Hammond and Scull mention the synopsis - and both discrepancies - in A Reader's Companion.
I wonder if the date Tolkien wrote these synopses can be identified? I suppose it is possible that Tolkien, who was not necessarily the most frequent reader of his own work once the last proofs had gone to press, may have written them later and depended on his memory. Parth Galen may be remembered as a single event, even though it is split between the two volumes, and he may have summarised it as such, rather than trying to say, for instance: "At the end of volume one, Frodo and Sam are leaving by boat, Aragorn is running up Amon Hen, the two other hobbits have run off to search for Frodo, and Legolas and Gimli are searching for them."

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear Clive

Yes, I assumed Wayne & Christina had covered it -- it wd be unlike them not to -- but wasn't able to find it in their book on a quick search so I didn't bring that in.


John D. Rateliff said...

Dear N.E.B.

Glad to hear I'm not the only one struck by the oddity of it.

Of course Tolkien being Tolkien it's quite possible that the mention of the orc-attack is quite deliberate. It does, after all, open up Volume II on a more dramatic note.

There's really no telling at this point, other than it's definitely the way Tolkien wanted it.

--John R