I have been reading along with the guys over at Stripped Cover Lit to The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien. It's definitely worth watching the video above if you have read LOTR before. I have my own qualms with some of the opinions expressed above, as I do really love this series and there are a few elements of literary merit that I picked up on with this re-read that weren't fully discussed in the video above. For that reason, I have taken my comments from the YouTube page for this video and blogged them below. Please do respond in the comments with your own thoughts.
The Stripped Cover Lit guys (Dalton and Adrian) talked a bit about the religious nature of the text, and there is certainly some religious imagery. More than that, however, I think Tolkien was just a total mythology/history geek. I mean, obviously, his first love is a love of ancient languages and lore as a philologist and his heart was set on developing a series that hearkened back to mythological writing. Thinking about that context, the depth of this world-building is absolutely necessary. He's trying to create a back story of a full, developed world separate from our own where such a rich mythology could develop.
Secondly, the pacing at the beginning of this novel seems absolutely consistent with points Tolkien is trying to establish early on about hobbits. Hobbits are removed from the rest of the world, they're separate and they enjoy living calm, slow, simple lives full of small comforts. The Shire isn't an exciting, worldly, or dynamic place. It's a place almost separate from the time upon which the rest of Middle Earth operates.
The pacing at the beginning of this story is necessary to ensnare the reader in the sleepiness and normal boredom that are such obvious features of the Shire. There's something immensely comforting about what you know, and it can also be stifling, and the writing really mimics that in this section of the book.
As the characters venture further into the rest of Middle Earth, more and more things will happen to them and the pacing will change, but you'll always notice that the hobbit characters themselves carry some of their home with them. They like to dally and enjoy their scenery when it's beautiful; they like to stop and eat VERY often, and drink and smoke when they can. That slowness (something that would also be so necessary in building the world of a novel that takes place in the American South, for instance) is an important element of the story.
The beginning of this book is bittersweet because it shows the relationships of two integral characters - Bilbo and Frodo - to their home. Bilbo has already ventured out. He has left home and had adventures that have changed him immensely, and spoiled him in some ways for his home, as it was before he left. The ring has also done this over time. Frodo loves the Shire, and he is never really shown as a character who longs to leave his home or adventure out. He loves his uncle and would leave the Shire out of loyalty to him, but is quite content to live a normal hobbit's life. His life of normalcy is interrupted, however, and he's required to take on a weighty task. The implication here is that leaving home he will never return to see it the way he once did. It's an Odyssey in the Homeric sense of that word. You go away out of the needs of the world, but in so doing you are changed and so is the world (including your home within that world).
I also think Tolkien explores the distinctions between a trio of characters who really begin to circle each other in the books: Bilbo, Frodo, and Gollum. Tolkien's already drawing parallels and distinctions, and showing the reader some different stages of attachment to the Ring, and how that attachment can also alienate one from home and countrymen/women. The sexual/female reading of the Ring is intriguing, but I can't quite gather what the overall point would be. After all, the few women who are depicted in the book are never evil, it's just that women in general are almost non-existent in the series. The ring is certainly a symbol for ensnaring/trapping power (e.g. you attempt to wield the power, but it actually wields you), and obviously there's some historical relevance for female power being viewed this way stereotypically (e.g. "soft power"), but I am not sure that the connection extends very deeply in the text.
One of my big issues with these books is that there are LITERALLY no female characters whatsoever until after this section, and only a couple major female characters developed in this whole series. My favorite, the kick-ass Eowyn, won't even show up until the Two Towers. What's confusing is that female characters aren't even really depicted in passing (except for that one Sackville-Baggins). This is a big failing of the series in my eyes, and I am unsure if it was done out of blindness of the author to a need for developed female characters, or if it was done intentionally. If someone knows, or has read any feminist critiques of Tolkien, I'd be intrigued to hear what theories exist.