All editions of The Lord of the Rings include detailed maps of the physical and political geography of Middle-earth. The first map provides a large-scale view of the area covered by the story. Frodo and his companions begin their journey in the Shire, in the upper left part of the map. The farthest point of his journey is in the lower right, inside Mordor. Each quadrant of this large map is enlarged, so that significant details, such as Mount Doom, can be located. A further enlargement, showing Rohan, Gondor, and Mordor, follows These six maps generally appear at the back of the third book. Finally, a detailed map of the Shire appears before the first book.
The Prologue explains hobbits and some significant elements of their culture and history. Hobbits are small creatures — about three feet tall — able to move quietly and quickly. Although they tend to avoid "Big Folk," they are more closely related to Men than they are to Elves or Dwarves. Hobbits mainly live in the Shire, a small and isolated country. They tend toward fat, because they like a quiet, well-ordered life of farming, laughter, and frequent meals, but nevertheless they are remarkably sturdy. They prefer to live in holes (very comfortably, with wooden floors and lots of windows).
About 60 years before Chapter 1 begins, one hobbit behaved most remarkably by going on an adventure. Along the way, Bilbo Baggins found a magic ring that turned its wearer invisible. It saved his life from Gollum, a hobbit-sized creature Bilbo met while lost in tunnels beneath the mountains and who was — unknown to Bilbo — the owner of the ring. Gollum learned Bilbo's name and homeland, and he felt bitter at losing his "precious," the ring. The introductory material concludes with a note that the following story has been taken from the Red Book of Westmarch, a record that began as Bilbo's diary, was continued by Frodo, and was passed on to the family of Sam Gamgee. Additional information comes from the libraries of Meriadoc and Peregrin.
Tolkien uses this introduction to establish the feeling of rich historical detail that grounds the novel's fantastic elements in a sense of realism, as well as to provide some important information contained in his previous book, The Hobbit, which its readers would find an unnecessary distraction from the current story. Because the novel covers a lot of ground both in terms of the distances that characters travel and the complex world of interrelated countries and peoples, refer to the maps whenever necessary.
The detailed maps, as well as the literary convention of editing and translating a previous historical record, help the reader suspend disbelief and accept the stranger parts of the story. Notably, the more fantastic descriptions of hobbits — their small stature, furry feet, and the comparison to such clearly imaginary creatures as elves and dwarves — come after they have been distanced from suspicions of magic: "Hobbits have never, in fact, studied magic of any kind, and their elusiveness is due solely to a professional skill."
The introduction makes clear that hobbits are like human beings: "It is plain indeed that in spite of later estrangement Hobbits are relatives of ours." Many people share the hobbits' appreciation for a quiet lifestyle filled with food and laughter. The hobbits are just plain folks going about their everyday lives without worrying about the wars and events outside of their small country, just as most people today worry more about what they will have for dinner than what the leader of some distant country is doing. For Tolkien, while "these little people seemed of very little importance" to the larger world, their actions are far more significant than anyone suspects.
In the story of Bilbo's acquisition of the ring, the narrator repeatedly emphasizes the element of "mere luck." Bilbo happened to find the ring in the dark, and his escape from Gollum came "more by luck (as it seemed) than by wits." Much as little people can have far greater effect than anyone expects, apparently random events can also prove crucial. In The Lord of the Rings, characters often succeed or fail based on what they think is luck. However, the reiteration of words like "mere" and "seemed" suggests that luck is not the deciding factor. What looks like luck may be something else, although its true nature remains unclear in this introduction.
Finally, the Prologue includes information on Bilbo's concealment of the Ring and of how he came by it. This uncharacteristic behavior serves two purposes. First, the lies told by the normally honest Bilbo establish the Ring's evil influence, especially when compared to the previous owner's (Gollum's) behavior. Second, Tolkien needs to account for the substantial revisions he made to the original version of The Hobbit in order to make it match the story of The Lord of the Rings. Instead of simply changing the story to fit, he incorporated the revisions directly into the story with the explanation of the Red Book, the first version of which is based on Bilbo's false account and the current version on his corrected story.
haywards local officials in charge of pastures and fences.
league a distance of roughly three miles.
mere a lake or pool.
pipeweed a dried plant similar to tobacco.
the Third Age the time of the story, beginning with the Isildur's defeat of Sauron and ending with the destruction of the One Ring.
turves plural of turf; pieces of sod grass.