THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (423 pp.) J.R.R. Tolkien Houghton Mifflin ($5).
THE VISIONARY NOVELS OF GEORGE MACDONALD (434 pp.)Edited by Anne FremantleNoonday Press ($5).
The literary world of elves, trolls, pixies and wizards is a victim of technological unemployment. Science fiction, with its flying saucers and its legions of Martian midgetmen, has just about monopolized the literature of fantasy. But two new books roll out the old-fashioned magic carpet. The Visionary Novels of George Macdonald (containing two stories, Lilith and Phantasies) are by a 19th century Scottish Presbyterian who deserted the pulpit for the pen, and The Fellowship of the Ring is by J.R.R. Tolkien, a pipe-smoking, 20th century Oxford philology professor. Both books are fashioned as fairy tales for adults, and fueled by strong and unorthodox imaginations.
Frodo at Fifty. Author Tolkien is the more disciplined storyteller, and The Fellowship of the Ring is the more appealing book. Actually, it is only the first third of a massive, three-volume cycle. The novel centers on a plain gold ring, magic but evil. The power of the ring varies. A simple soul can slip it on and make himself invisible, but a tyrant can slip it on and rule the world. In The Fellowship of the Ring, which takes place in the "Third Age of Middle Earth," the drama springs from the fact that a simple soul has the ring and a tyrant wants it.
The simple soul is Frodo Baggins of Bag End, who has been bequeathed the ring by a rich old cousin. Frodo is a hobbit. Hobbits are under three feet tall, eat six meals a day, like to give parties, and both the rich and the poor live in holes. Hobbits are "soft as butter . . . and yet sometimes as tough as old tree-roots." In the end, of course, hobbits turn out to be more like people than people. Frodo is a happy hobbit who whiles away his "tweens"the "irresponsible twenties between childhood and coming of age at thirty-three." Only at 50 is Frodo driven onto the road to trouble and adventure, by a touch of wanderlust and by the minions of the tyrannical Lord of Mordor, who are scouring hobbitland for the ring.
A silver-bearded wizard outlines Frodo's task and quest. He must "find the Cracks of Doom in the depths of Orodruin, the Fire-mountain, and cast the Ring in there ... to put it beyond the grasp of the Enemy for ever."
Ores, Balrogs & Ringwraiths. Frodo is about as eager to do this as P. G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster would be to play Siegfried. The bulk of the novel describes his trials. Some of them would scarcely faze a cub scout, and there is so much hiking in fog and snow, up hill and through bog, that Frodo seems at times like a mythical postman. His enemies, however, send shivers rippling along the spine: toeless, green-scaled Ores, fire-breathing Balrogs, Barrow-wights who put their prey in a catatonic trance, and the Ringwraiths, nine black-shrouded riders on nine black horses. Frodo and friends best them all, but in the modern manner, more by muddling through than by measuring up to their challenges. Obscure in allegorical meaning but apocalyptic in tone, The Fellowship of the Ring sometimes melts its magic in plausibility, forgetting that a fairy tale is a snow man that cannot be brought into the house.