The Lord of the Rings Reread

LotR re-read: Fellowship I.2, “The Shadow of the Past”

Next up in the Lord of the Rings re-read is chapter two of Fellowship, “The Shadow of the Past.” This chapter is remarkable in both mechanics and content, and the post behind the jump is accordingly very long. With, as usual, spoilers.

What Happens

Frodo goes on with his life, with late-growing restlessness, for sixteen years. He’s forty-nine, Gandalf hasn’t been seen for nine years, and there are strange rumours about; so he starts collecting bad news of a dark power growing in Mordor after being driven out of Mirkwood.

Sam and Ted Sandyman (the miller’s son) talk in an inn (a different inn) about the strange rumours; Ted doesn’t believe them and doesn’t see the relevance regardless, while Sam is thoughtful and concerned.

Gandalf re-appears, reveals the fiery letters on the Ring, and provides an enormous info-dump. He was concerned from the start, but since he couldn’t take the ring from Bilbo and Saruman’s general information about rings was reassuring, he had left the matter alone. After the party, he determined to figure things out. Aragorn finally found Gollum, and between his information and the lore of the Wise, Gandalf tells the Ring’s history: the forging; Sauron’s defeat; Isildur’s death at the river; Sméagol’s murder of Déagol, transformation into Gollum, attempt to track Bilbo, and capture by Mordor; and the resulting danger to the Shire.

Frodo chooses to take the Ring out of the Shire to save it. Sam has been eavesdropping. Gandalf catches him and tells him to go with Frodo, to Sam’s joy.

Comments

The opening parallels the first chapter, opening with the town’s general opinion of Bilbo and then moving to a conversation at an inn. The “POV” follows a similar telescoping-in to Frodo, but it’s much more clearly focused on his internal thoughts; there’s a brief mention of Gandalf’s thoughts, but otherwise it’s almost the same as a third-person Frodo POV.

In the inn conversation, the Gaffer’s son and the miller’s son occupy their fathers’ narrative positions, but aren’t the same: Sam is more open-minded, Ted is less nasty (though just as close-minded). This is the conversation that hints at strange things coming up against small-town complacency (like walking elm trees), not the one in the first chapter, but they’re so similar that it’s no surprise that people mistake them.

* * *

As Frodo becomes more restless, we’re told, “He found himself wondering at times, especially in the autumn, about the wild lands, and strange visions of mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams.” The Valar taking a subtle hand?

Anyone here seen Grosse Pointe Blank? When I got to the timeline here, I hear Jeremy Piven in my head going “Ten years!” Only, you know, sixteen years instead. I know this gets the times all symbolic and aligned and stuff, but it really strains my suspension of disbelief.

* * *

The most interesting thing about this chapter is that the really remarkably long info-dump works, that is, it doesn’t stop me-the-reader dead in my tracks. We were talking about genre conventions and the lack thereof in comments to an earlier post, which I’m now reminded of: today, a long info-dump conversation might be frowned upon as inelegant, since we have genre conventions that tend to value smooth incluing. And yet sometimes a straightforward expository conversation isn’t a bad idea. So, let’s look at the mechanics here, starting with the structure. (The first version of this post used a table, which you may find more readable.)


Section 1

Subject:
Danger to a mortal possessor of a Great Ring

Opening:
Outside, peaceful:
“Next morning after a late breakfast, the wizard was sitting with Frodo by the open window of the study.”

Closing:
Dialogue, reaction, contrasting with outside, peaceful:
“‘How terrifying!’ said Frodo. There was another long silence. The sound of Sam Gamgee cutting the lawn came in from the garden.”

Notes:
Gandalf is remembering Bilbo running out of Bag End in the second paragraph.


Section 2

Subject:
When Gandalf became concerned for Bilbo and the Shire

Opening:
Dialogue, follow-up:
“‘How long have you known this?’ asked Frodo at length. ‘And how much did Bilbo know?’”

Closing:
Dialogue, cliff-hanger:
“You do not know the real peril yet; but you shall. I was not sure of it myself when I was last here; but the time has come to speak. Give me the ring for a moment.”

Notes:
No references to outside.


Section 3

Subject:
Revealing the Ring’s fiery letters

Opening:
Action, follow-up:
“Frodo took it from his breeches-pocket, where it was clasped to a chain that hung from his belt.”

Closing:
Dialogue, cliff-hanger:
“Frodo sat silent and motionless. Fear seemed to stretch out a vast hand, like a dark cloud rising in the East and looming up to engulf him. ‘This ring!’ he stammered. ‘How, how on earth did it come to me?’”

Notes:
Shutters closed and curtains drawn partway through, though can still hear Sam’s shears.


Section 4

Subject:
History of Ring from forging through Isildur

Opening:
Dialogue, follow-up:
“‘Ah!’ said Gandalf. ‘That is a very long story.”

Closing:
Dialogue, cliff-hanger:
“But at last I can carry on the story, I think.”

Notes:
“Time that is given to us.” No references to outside.


Section 5

Subject:
History of Ring with Sméagol

Opening:
Narrative continuation:
“Long after, but still very long ago, there lived by the banks of the Great River on the edge of Wilderland a clever-handed and quiet-footed little people.”

Closing:
Narrative conclusion:
“The Ring went into the shadows with him, and even the maker, when his power had begun to grow again, could learn nothing of it.”

Notes:
Only Gandalf’s narration; no references to outside.


Section 6

Subject:
Gollum after the Ring; Gandalf getting information from Gollum

Opening:
Dialogue, follow-up:
“‘Gollum!’ cried Frodo. ‘Gollum? Do you mean that this is the very Gollum-creature that Bilbo met? How loathsome!’”

Closing:
Dialogue, cliff-hanger / narrative conclusion:
“But I am afraid there is no possible doubt: he had made his slow, sneaking way, step by step, mile by mile, south, down at last to the Land of Mordor.”

Notes:
Longest sub-section. Possibly not realistic that Frodo waits until now to interject about Gollum, when he’s referred to as such four paragraphs ago. “Meant.” No references to outside.


Section 7

Subject:
The Enemy getting information from Gollum; danger to the Shire

Opening:
Outside, ominous:
“A heavy silence fell in the room. Frodo could hear his heart beating. Even outside everything seemed still. No sound of Sam’s shears could now be heard.”

Closing:
Dialogue, cliff-hanger:
“‘No. But I suppose one could hammer it or melt it.’ ‘Try!’ said Gandalf. ‘Try now!’”

Notes:
“Pity.”


Section 8

Subject:
Destroying the Ring

Opening:
Action, follow-up:
“Frodo drew the Ring out of his pocket again and looked at it. It now appeared plain and smooth, without mark or device that he could see.”

Closing:
Dialogue, cliff-hanger:
“I will help you bear this burden, as long as it is yours to bear. But we must do something, soon. The Enemy is moving.”
—preceded by reference to peaceful outside.

Notes:
Gandalf refuses the Ring.


Section 9

Subject:
Frodo chooses to try to save the Shire

Opening:
Inaction, follow-up:
“There was a long silence. Gandalf . . . was watching Frodo intently. Frodo gazed fixedly at the red embers on the hearth, until they filled all his vision, and he seemed to be looking down into profound wells of fire. He was thinking of the fabled Cracks of Doom and the terror of the Fiery Mountain.”

Closing:
End of chapter, Sam reaction

Notes:
Contains a reference to outside and tension-breaking reversal: mention of spies, silence, and then catching Sam.


This circles around: it starts (section 1) with the danger just past, to Bilbo, and then (section 2) asserts that there is danger to the Shire. The Ring is definitively identified (section 3), which lets the furthest points of the circle (sections 4-6) be the furthest points in time, the Ring’s history. The history then comes back to the present and why there’s danger to the Shire (section 7); the last two sections look forward, to what needs to be done (destroy the Ring, section 8) and who’s going to do it (Frodo and Sam, at the start, section 9). The levels of tension are reinforced by the references to the environment, as the chapter circles around from light and outside, to dark and inside, and back again (and ends with a slightly-comic gardener, where possibly both parts of the description are equally relevant).

This is a logical progression: the primary concerns of Frodo and the reader, after chapter 1, are Bilbo and the Shire. The chapter draws readers in through these familiar things, hooks them with talk of danger, and then leads them through as much information as they need to know to understand the danger. (After The Silmarillion, and even the Appendices, section 4’s brevity is striking.) With the exception of section 5, the end of each intermediate section draws readers on through cliff-hangers, though small ones; section 5 is the mid-point of the circle, a resting-point, and thus it ends with Gandalf finishing his revelation of the Ring’s history.

The final thing that caught my eye, though probably not the final thing that makes this chapter work, is the mixing of narrative techniques. For instance, sections 4 and 5 are both history. In section 4, Gandalf tells the story from a quite remote distance, much abridged and with little color; but in section 5, Gandalf tells the tale from much closer, recounting dialogue and individual thoughts without intrusion. Like Gandalf, the narration also varies its distance, providing a view on the internal thoughts of the characters on a few key occasions: to set up parallels to Bilbo, when Gandalf remembers him (section 1) or Frodo wants to follow (section 8); to foreshadow Frodo’s relationship with the Ring, when Frodo thinks how precious it is (section 8) or looks into the embers and thinks of the Cracks of Doom (section 9), and also to emphasize the importance and unexpectedness of Frodo’s choice.

Which leads me to one of the unsatisfactory bits about Sam: Gandalf gives Frodo the opportunity to decide what he’s going to do, and it’s very important that Frodo chooses to take the Ring and leave the Shire. Sam’s not given a choice; and though in some ways it’s irrelevant because this is what he would have chosen, I still had a problem with it, especially given his portrayal (see below).

* * *

Does Gandalf touch the Ring to throw it into the fire?

Frodo took it from his breeches-pocket, where it was clasped to a chain that hung from his belt. He unfastened it and handed it slowly to the wizard. It felt suddenly very heavy, as if either it or Frodo himself was in some way reluctant for Gandalf to touch it.

Gandalf held it up. It looked to be made of pure and solid gold. . . . To Frodo’s astonishment and distress the wizard threw it suddenly into the middle of a glowing corner of the fire.

He’s probably holding it up by the chain, but it’s surprising that it is ambiguous.

* * *

Smeagol & Gollum:

The characterization of Smeagol pre-Ring caught my attention; it starts out positive or at least neutral, and then progresses, well, downward:

He was interested in roots and beginnings; he dived into deep pools; he burrowed under trees and growing plants; he tunneled into green mounds; and he ceased to look up at the hill-tops, or the leaves on trees, or the flowers opening in the air: his head and his eyes were downward.

This prompted me to flag “pursuit of knowledge” as a theme to look for.

The power Gollum was given by the Ring: “He was very pleased with his discovery and he concealed it; and he used it to find out secrets, and he put his knowledge to crooked and malicious uses. He became sharp-eyed and keen-eared for all that was hurtful. The ring had given him power according to his stature.” I heard it suggested at a Boskone that later, the power he was given was secrecy, which maybe explains how he stayed hidden for so long even with all those goblins around and Sauron in Dol Goldur.

* * *

Other bits of significant conversation:

“Meant”:

[Gandalf:] “Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that maybe an encouraging thought.”

I believe this is the first in-story example of the relatively weak portrayal of supernatural good, as described by Shippey.

And “pity”:

“What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!”

“Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.”

“I am sorry,” said Frodo. “But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum.”

“You have not seen him,” Gandalf broke in.

“No, and I don’t want to,” said Frodo. “I can’t understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.”

“Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many—yours not least.”

The Capital Letters of Significance caught my attention this time around; I’m not sure that Tolkien did this a lot, or that it’s a good idea.

Otherwise, there’s so much packed into this exchange that I nearly don’t know where to start: foreshadowing, the themes of choice and power, the place Frodo starts his growth from . . .

* * *

I didn’t talk much about my personal emotional reaction to the first chapter, mostly because I don’t have much of one. Here, my predominant reaction is, during the info-dump, getting a bit annoyed at Frodo’s reactions before deciding to leave—perfectly understandable reactions, of course, but still. I can’t remember now if I was ever surprised that Frodo chooses to take the Ring out of the Shire (just as Bilbo chose to leave it behind). But I still do think, as I said about the first chapter, that the information here, and the craft with which it is conveyed, would keep my hypothetical first-reading self interested.

* * *

The ending fails for me: “‘Me, sir!’ cried Sam, springing up like a dog invited for a walk. ‘Me go and see Elves and all! Hooray!’ he shouted, and then burst into tears.”

I can see bursting into tears of shock and joy immediately; I can see bouncing around in joy; I can’t see doing them in this order. Also, while the dog simile is vivid (having acquired a dog since the last time I read this), I do find the overall effect unfortunate.

* * *

Miscellany:

  • Gandalf appears to age, though slowly: “His hair was perhaps whiter than it had been then, and his beard and eyebrows were perhaps longer, and his face more lined with care and wisdom; but his eyes were as bright as ever, and he smoked and blew smoke-rings with the same vigour and delight.”

  • Foreshadowing/repeated image during the info-dump conversation: “Fear seemed to stretch out a vast hand, like a dark cloud rising in the East and looming up to engulf him [Frodo].”

  • Frodo calls the Ring precious twice in this chapter, once out loud and once in his thoughts (and once characterizing Golllum’s thoughts).

  • Okay, one movie thing: sometimes it puts more emphasis on lines that I wouldn’t otherwise have noticed. The “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us” conversation doesn’t even get a separate paragraph in the text.


« Fellowship I.1 | Index | Flieger, “Tolkien and the Idea of the Book” »

31 Comments

Subscribe to this thread