The prologue is an introduction to the character, culture, and history of the race of hobbits. Readers can find further details in the Red Book of Westmarch (also known as The Hobbit) that was written by a renowned hobbit named Bilbo Baggins.
Through the prologue that is purely dedicated to discussing the race of hobbits, the narrator immediately signals to readers that hobbits will be key players in The Fellowship of the Ring. The reference to further literature gives the text a slightly scholarly feel by presenting information (and Tolkien’s actual book The Hobbit) as a historical record.
Hobbits are a small and inconspicuous people who can move so quietly and swiftly that they may at times seem magic. They are related more closely to humans than dwarves or elves, and live in the land of the Shire where they enjoy quiet, rural lifestyles. As a people, they were largely disregarded by their fellow inhabitants on Middle-earth until the exploits of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.
Everything about hobbits—their physical appearance, their movements, their lifestyles, and their relationships to other races—suggests that they are inconsequential players in Middle-earth. The narrator is setting the scene for the great reveal that it is these seemingly insignificant hobbits who will decide the very fate of Middle-earth.
Hobbits have enjoyed generations of peaceful existence in the Shire, though they are largely unaware of the labors of others that allow their idyllic lifestyles. They have “lived a peaceful pastoral life, devoid of machinery,” and enjoy the simple pleasures of life—food, drink, song, and good company. Despite their comfortable lifestyles, hobbits are curiously tough and resilient characters.
Overall, the narrator has painted hobbits as a peaceful, good-natured folk who live a blessedly serene life. The narrator also reveals their preference for nature over industry. Now readers become aware that the hobbits are being protected by other peoples from unknown harmful forces. Readers may also be surprised to learn that despite their love of creature comforts and their peaceful history, hobbits are also resourceful and hardy beings if the need arises.
Traditionally living in holes in the earth, over time hobbits have adopted the customs of other races to build low-lying dwellings above ground. They now populate a mixture of hobbit holes and traditional houses, and sometimes live in large numbers with extended family. Hobbits revel in the comfort of home and rarely travel. Indeed, the idea of the distant sea terrifies many hobbits, and boating and swimming is largely unpopular.
The narrator again highlights that hobbits are creatures of comfort. They rarely travel and fear the distant sea, which speaks to their general dislike of adventure and change. Their aversion to bodies of water contrasts to hobbits’ love of the earth; they do not just cultivate the land, but traditionally they live within the earth itself. Hobbits are also described as extremely social creatures who can enjoy living in large groups; this begins to foreshadow the intense sense of loyalty and fellowship that hobbits demonstrate later in The Fellowship.
Hobbits have an unusual fondness for smoking pipe-weed and are enormously proud of their claimed invention of the practice. It is from hobbits that humans, dwarves and wizards learned the art of smoking pipe-weed as tobacco. The narrator goes into great detail to explain hobbits’ passion for pipe-weed, the intricate history of its cultivation, and the many varieties of the leaf.
Hobbits are not creative beings except in one aspect—their invention of smoking pipe-weed. The narrator presents their pride in this art form in great detail. This meticulous account of one aspect of hobbits’ culture reflects the narrative style throughout The Fellowship. Tolkien imbues his story with intricate detail to ground the narrative in a realistic history.
The Shire is divided into numerous regions that are mostly governed within families, although there are some hobbits who work the more formal role of Shirriffs (police) and Bounders (overseeing the good behavior of outsiders). The chief pastime of hobbits is growing and eating food, and social disturbance is rare, although there are growing instances of trouble from strange people and creatures at the Shire’s borders.
The considerable lack of formal authority in the Shire evidences the hobbits’ peaceful histories. The names of the “Shirriffs” and “Bounders” are traditionally English and pastoral in nature, reflecting Tolkien’s upbringing in rural Worcestershire and its surrounding areas. The Shire is almost an idealized version of Tolkien’s pastoral England; the prologue becomes a gentle introduction to a Middle-earth which, as readers will soon find out, is home to fantastical creatures, powers, and landscapes.
Bilbo Baggins was a seemingly ordinary hobbit who was thrust into adventure when Gandalf the Grey and thirteen dwarves knocked on the door of his hobbit hole. He set out with his new acquaintances to the distant Lonely Mountain, undertaking a quest to destroy a dragon and reclaim great hoards of dwarf treasures.
Bilbo’s adventures contain fantastical elements of myth and fairytale, and have already become renowned in many of Middle-earth’s regions. Gandalf seemed to know that he was the right hobbit for the quest, and Bilbo’s character grew from a tame and timid hobbit to a courageous and steadfast adventurer. The narrator is setting up a similar journey for Bilbo’s nephew and the protagonist of The Fellowship, Frodo.
Bilbo’s adventure would have barely registered in the history books except for a chance event that happened on his journey to the Lonely Mountain. Bilbo stumbled upon a magic ring in the tunnels under the Misty Mountains, and partook in a game of riddles with the ring’s previous owner—a miserable, hobbit-like creature called Gollum. When Gollum realized that Bilbo had found his “precious” ring in the tunnels, he rushed at Bilbo in a jealous rage, intending to kill him. Bilbo then accidentally chanced upon the ring’s ability to render its wearer invisible, and used this gift to escape Gollum and exit the mountain tunnels. Gollum was both furious and devastated to lose his treasure, and cursed the name of Baggins as the thief who stole the ring.
The strange set of unlikely circumstances that led to Bilbo discovering the One Ring in the Misty Mountains and escaping Gollum’s malice—a side story in The Hobbit but the seed that begins the quest in The Lord of the Rings—suggests that there is a greater force at work in Middle-earth: fate. This is a thread that will be picked up on many times throughout The Fellowship as characters comment on predetermined actions and events. Bilbo’s naivety and luck, integral to his success in his worldly adventures, also suggest that simplicity is an asset to survival in a realm where powerful players overlook the humble.
For no obvious reason, when recounting this story to trusted friends, Bilbo alters some of the details about his finding of the magic ring and his encounter with Gollum. This does not sit well with Gandalf, who is surprised that the usually honest hobbit tells fibs about the ring.
The narrator begins to hint at the effects of what we later learn is the evil Sauron’s One Ring: its dark influence taints Bilbo’s usually forthright and ethical character by causing him to lie. Gandalf is so unsettled by his friend’s change in character that he begins to suspect the Ring’s true nature.
Upon his return to the Shire, Bilbo keeps the ring’s existence quiet and lives a long and happy life in his homeland. Only Gandalf and Bilbo’s nephew Frodo know that Bilbo keeps it on him at all times on a chain in his pocket. Beyond the ring, he also keeps a number of mementos from his adventures in various places about his home; he stores his old traveling cloak and hood in a drawer, and his sword, Sting, hangs above the fireplace.
The narrator foreshadows the Ring’s corrupting influence through Bilbo’s need to have it on his person at all times. Bilbo’s nostalgia for the adventures of his youth is evident in his careful preservation of traveling items. His value of the thrill of travel highlights how unusual he is compared to his mostly cautious and traditionalist fellow hobbits.