Tolkien Geek

Blogging J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" and other aimless pursuits.


FOTR: Bk 1, Ch 2

The Shadow of the Past

"Last night you began to tell me strange things about my ring, Gandalf," he said. "And then you stopped, because you said that such matters were best left to daylight. Don't you think you had better finish now?"

Other than "The Council of Elrond", this chapter is the most important one in Fellowship of the Ring in terms of overall plot development. The amount of information we learn helps explain the motivation for Frodo's need to leave the Shire and it sets into motion the events that would transform this "sequel" to The Hobbit into the an epic tale that will tie in all the lands and peoples of Middle-Earth.

Compressed into this one chapter are tales and dialogue that Peter Jackson broke apart and scattered throughout his three films. This was a necessity in order to avoid a long scene of exposition that would have bored a lot of the audience. Here is the story of Isildur and the cutting off of the Ring from Sauron's hand as well as his loss of the Ring at the Gladden Fields. (Interesting to note is that the tale of the Gladden Fields is told in some detail in Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-Earth.) Both of these stories are presented in PJ's Prologue to the film Fellowship of the Ring. There is also the story of Smeagol and his murder of Deagol that opens Jackson's Return of the King. Many of the discussions that take place about Gollum between Frodo and Gandalf are shifted to a scene in FOTR in the tunnels of Moria.

The most important aspect of this chapter, however, is that here Tolkien gives us a much better understanding of the power of the Ring and how that power effects different characters. Having returned from his journeys of investigation, Gandalf puts the final test to the Ring by throwing it into the fire, which reveals the Elvish script - "One Ring to rule them all and in the darkness, bind them." At this moment we are first presented with a quandry over the nature of good and evil. As Frodo hands Gandalf the Ring, he feels something strange:

"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."
Tolkien scholars have long debated the nature of evil as presented in the books. There is a terrific discussion of this in Tom Shippey's "The Road to Middle-Earth". Warning: We are about to get into some serious philosophical stuff here. The nature of the debate over good and evil comes down to two views: Manichaean and Boethian (not to be confused with Bothan, the species who supplied data about the second Death Star to the rebellion in "Return of the Jedi").

The Manichaean view of Good and Evil states that Evil is an equal force to Good, constantly in conflict with it. This view centers around the idea that Evil is a reality that takes hold of some and manipulates them into Evil acts. The Boethian view postulates that Evil is nothing more than the absence of Good, the way dark is merely the absence of light. Good takes effort whereas Evil is the natural state of mankind - driven by selfishness and animal instinct. In this case there is a conscious decision made by the individual to be "bad". Good is difficult, Evil is easy. This should not to be confused with the Spaceballs theory, in which Dark Helmet asserts that Evil always wins "because good is dumb."

There are many examples of each in The Lord of the Rings. For example the description of Sauron's inability to create but rather to corrupt is Boethian. As Treebeard states:
"Trolls are only counterfeits, made by the Enemy in the Great Darkness, in mockery of Ents, as Orcs were of Elves"
On the other hand, the Ring itself can be viewed as enforcing it's evil nature on the weaknesses of those who desire it. Tom Shippey writes:
"It has to work through the agency of is possessors, and especially by picking out the weak points of their characters - possessiveness in Bilbo, fear in Frodo, patriotism in Boromir, pity in Gandalf."
Perhaps Tolkien was unable to remedy this contradiction because it is not resolved within his own Catholicism. While Christian teaching emphasizes free will - as in the Adam and Eve story - the idea of an Evil force is also emphasized in such manifestations as Satan, the tempter. We will probably never know for sure which way Tolkien leaned. It is likely that he himself never reconciled these two views within himself prior his death.

In any event, it seems clear that the Ring at least amplifies the characteristics of each individual. Tolkien describes Gollum before his encounter with the Ring as a being "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." As such, the Ring intensified his desire to escape the light of both sun and moon and delve deep under the Misty Mountains.

Smeagol/Gollum also acquires the Ring through the murder of his friend, Deagol. Such treachery allowed him to more quickly fall under its influence and power. Contrast this with Bilbo's experiences. Quite the opposite to Gollum, Bilbo decided against killing Gollum when he had the chance because of the pity he felt for the creature. Tolkien shows us that hobbits, as a "species" if you will are tougher in their resistance to the effects of the Ring than men, but clearly there is a huge variance among individual hobbits (Smeagol is described as hobbit-like, whose people were ancestors of the Stoor strain of hobbits).

Gollum became wretched and withered while Bilbo became "well-preserved". Of course Gollum possessed the Ring much longer than Bilbo and even Gandalf suggests that such a sad story "might have happened to others, even to some hobbits that I have known." But Bilbo ultimately gives up the Ring willingly and we are left to wonder if this is a testament to his inner strength or merely because the Ring had less of a chance to acquire a power over him than it did Gollum.

This whole business about the "invisible" Bilbo's restraint with Sting during his encounter with Gollum contains one of my favorite passages from FOTR. When Frodo states that it was a pity that Bilbo hadn't stabbed such a vile creature, Gandalf responds.
"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."

Indeed, it would seem Bilbo was protected somewhat from the effects of the Ring due to his particular nature.

One other passage of note. When the film version of Fellowship of the Ring was released in December 2001, I recall the state of mind of the country in the wake of the attacks of September 11th. People had a hard time coming to grips with the kind of wanton violence that was unleashed on so many innocent people in the span of only a couple of hours. Throughout their history, I believe it has been a characteristic of Americans to want nothing more than to be left alone, comfortably surrounded by two oceans and two friendly neighbors . It is a frame of mind that recalls that of the hobbits in the Shire. And it's generally not in the nature of Americans to fight simply for the sake of fighting itself, but when their safety is threatened, they instinctively rally to their own defense - however reluctantly.

I remember watching the conversation in the movie between Gandalf and Frodo that comes from a section of this particular chapter. Frodo expresses to the wizard that he wishes the Ring had never come to him. Gandalf assures the hobbit: "So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us." That line really hit home. It served as a reminder that - as individuals - we can have little effect on large-scale events that affect so many of us. But how we respond to such events and how we choose to live the lives we are given says a lot about each of us. In many cases, even a simple individual can have an significant effect - for good or bad - on so many others.

But the passage also serves as a warning to mankind: "All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given us." This could be applicable to the state of Europe at the time that this was written. I know I have already addressed the idea that the events in Tolkien's epic are not analogous to the events of the day, but in a general sense the author may have been influenced by what he perceived as the darkness on the horizon in 1939. Having experienced first-hand the horrors of the trenches in Northern France twenty years earlier, his words can certainly be applicable to the many who, at the time, saw the potential calamity of the conflict that was building and decided to do nothing until the evil had grown to such a point that it was almost too late.

By the end of the chapter, Frodo has made his decision: to take the Ring away from the Shire in order to protect his home. In time, however, this momentous decision will come to affect the future of all of Middle-Earth.

[Chronology: September 23rd 3001 through April 13th 3018 T.A.]

Next: Three Is Company

(revised 8/7/06)


At 5:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the chance to discuss LOTR. I am really looking forward to re-examining the books as you go through.

As for the people who think fantasy is escapist literature, I think they are being quite superficial and not looking at it as art meant to comment on our own condition. Like your previous discussion of allegory, there is not a 1:1 correspondence, but the discussions are certainly applicable to everyday life.

At 12:21 AM, Blogger Mark said...

I also am a huge fan of the line from Gandalf that you quote so fact, I have it on my cubicle wall..


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