The morning after the night before – Drawing with ink and wide nib
Welcome to my 50th post on this blog!
The Influence of the Ring
It is in this chapter that we get our first glimpse of the power and evil influence of the Ring. All we know about it before now is that it is a plain gold band, picked up by Bilbo in the dark depths of the misty mountains. Despite its plain appearance, it also has the extraordinary capacity to make the wearer invisible. This power was used by Bilbo to help him and his company get out of several tricky situations, and thus we have no reason to fear the Ring, rather we are inclined to see it as something useful. One final thing we took note of from The Hobbit was that it was once obsessively possessed by Gollum.
When Bilbo uses it again to disappear from his Birthday Party, we don’t think much of it; it is only when Bilbo has his unsettling quarrel with Gandalf at Bag End that we sense something is not quite right. It is Gandalf’s reaction in particular that raises the alarm for the reader – he watches Bilbo, “curiously and closely”, and when Bilbo calls the Ring his “precious”, it is Gandalf who reminds him and us that “it has been called that before”. The two traits, or rather curses, bestowed by the Ring on its owner – unnaturally long life and covetousness – are exposed to the reader via Gandalf.
Tolkien did such a good job in setting Gandalf up as a figure of wisdom and confidence in The Hobbit, that when he is troubled by something, the reader knows the matter is serious. Moreover, we always saw Gandalf sticking up for Bilbo, and we got used to seeing the paternalistic side to him in the prequel. His cantankerousness was never a real threat. It is a surprise, therefore, to see Gandalf raising his voice against the old hobbit, it’s a sudden jolt after the light-hearted Shire-talk and the Party. If we didn’t know him better, we would wonder why it matters so much that Bilbo wants to keep his ring – why should he not? But we innately trust Gandalf’s reasons, and thank goodness he prevails in the end. Had it not been for Gandalf’s intervention, Bilbo Baggins might have been wandering in the wilderness with the Ring, with no protection, and – unbeknownst to him – in mortal danger.
As for that Ring, Bilbo’s own words corroborate Gandalf’s suspicions about it:
“It has been growing on my mind lately. Sometimes I have felt it was like an eye looking at me.”
When the rest of the epic fills your reminiscences, it is easy to overlook early details like this. But when I read that line this time, it made me stop. It’s creepy – the Ring is like an eye? An eye that watches Bilbo. In his own home. The way he describes it, it seems as though the Ring is not an inanimate object after all, but it is sentient, surveilling everything that is going on. Does it have agency of its own, independent of its wearer? Or is it just the perception of the one who possesses it, some strange paranoid psychosis which makes him both attached to and suspicious of the Ring? This theme will come up again in the book, and is fascinating precisely because of its ambiguity.
Since we don’t know enough about the Ring at this early stage, we don’t truly understand the magnitude of what Bilbo does next – that is, to voluntarily give it up. As I re-read this part of the chapter with the benefit of hindsight, I better appreciated what an incredible mental and physical feat it was.
The other thing we don’t fully grasp at this stage, is how significant and dangerous the following lines will prove to be:
Gandalf: “Go away and leave it behind. Stop Possessing it. Give it to Frodo, and I will look after him.”
“Very well,” said Bilbo. “It goes to Frodo with all the rest.”
The moment in which Bilbo gains his freedom from the Ring, is also the moment when Frodo becomes inextricably bound to it. I think it’s quite poignant, tragic even, that this burden is innocently placed on Frodo by those he loves the most.
‘Jolly old Frodo’
With Bilbo bowing out of Bag-End, we discover that not only is he bequeathing his possessions to his nephew, but he is also bequeathing his part in the tale. Before that, Frodo is introduced to the reader in absentia. He remains ‘off-stage’ for most of the chapter, and we don’t actually see him and Bilbo together at any point.
A brief history on the first page tells us that he is an orphan, brought to live at Bag End by Bilbo his uncle (as one might often call an elderly second cousin). Before that he lived among his numerous Brandybuck relatives on his mother’s side. I imagine he would have been taken care of quite well there, but not with a great deal of personal attention – there were so many to contend with. The reader wonders how this, along with the tragic death of his parents, might have had an impact on his character.
When Frodo finally enters the story in person, it is remarkable for his lack of speech. He “said nothing”; “sat silent”; “ignored all remarks and questions”; “drained his own glass silently to the health of Bilbo”; “slipped out of the pavilion”. In between all that, there is a whole lot of thinking and reflection – from amusement, to feeling “deeply troubled”. We hadn’t met Frodo at all before now, but we are immediately allowed to share in his personal feelings. Perhaps that creates a trust, and an empathy, between the reader and Frodo Baggins.
From this chapter we garner that Frodo has a generous sense of humour, tempered by thoughtfulness. He seems a bit introverted, less comfortable in big gatherings, and even less so when it’s his “painful duty to say goodbye to the guests”…but he manages, and he is certainly not a recluse – the younger hobbits all cheered his name at the party, and he seems to craft the right things to say at the right time. When he is with Gandalf, whom he trusts, he expresses his worries and doubts more openly – he is more selective in what he says to others. Having said all that, I think there are two overriding impressions we get from this brief intro – 1. he is doggedly good-natured, even when tired. Despite his irritation with the Sackville-Bagginses, he seems to get over it quite well by cracking a joke as soon as he closes the door (and Merry’s response is even better 🙂 ). But 2. he is no pushover! He demonstrates this when dealing with the trespassers in Bag End.
For all the banter and parochialism of this section, it shifts mood dramatically right at the end. The chapter closes with tension and uncertainty:
‘He [Gandalf] gave a final wave of his hand, and walked off at a surprising pace; but Frodo thought the old wizard looked unusually bent, almost as if he was carrying a great weight. The evening was closing in, and his cloaked figure quickly vanished into the twilight. Frodo did not see him again for a long time.’
I think the reader is lulled into a sense of security by the easy and gradual pace of the chapter – most of it, starting with the title, seems to draw the reader in by emphasising familiarity and safety. That gets challenged by the conclusion, as things take a darker turn.
Drawing (top) – is inspired by the following passage:
“By mid-day, when even the best-fed were out and about again, there was a large crowd at Bag End, uninvited but not unexpected. Frodo was waiting on the step, smiling, but looking rather tired and worried. He welcomed all the callers, but he had not much more to say than before.”
Again, I’ve chosen a passage that has always produced a clear image in my mind – of poor Frodo having to deal with the aftermath of Bilbo’s party, a weight on his shoulders. But it’s not just the uninvited callers and the responsibility of distributing the presents that I imagine is on his mind. The morning will have brought home the reality that Bilbo is no longer there, that he might never see him again, and that he – alone – is the new master of Bag End. Most people have a more gradual transition to ‘adulthood’; it’s all quite sudden and probably daunting for young Frodo, and yet he still has to put on a calm exterior.
I chose ‘Aqua-marine’ coloured ink, on a bit of a whim – bit bright, don’t think I’ll use it again. But I did want to capture the sense of morning sunlight streaming in through the front door, and apparently the colour blue helps with that (something to do with blue light radiation in the early part of the day..long story).
Click here for Part 3 of the series.