Part 4, Reading and Drawing The Lord of the Rings: On Fear, Knowledge and Power


At last, a new blogpost, to (nearly) coincide with Bilbo and Frodo’s birthday! This is the second and last post on The Shadow of the Past…I’ve narrowed it down to a few themes, but there is so much more that could be said on this one chapter.

It seems fitting to start off with an appreciation of Tolkien’s skill as a story-teller. Writing good narrative is exceptionally hard, and even renowned authors struggle with it. I marvel at the way Tolkien was able to parse out which components of the story were crucial at the start, which bits of information needed only to be hinted at, and which order to do this all in. Yes, of course there were many drafts and many edits, but to even be able to start at all, with so much of the tale already ‘painted’ in his mind – it would have taken both courage and patience, and I salute the Professor.

On the subject of patience: Gandalf is entrusted with Tolkien’s job in this chapter; of course we, the readers, are Frodo. Having travelled with him in The Hobbit, we already trust Gandalf’s wisdom. We already expect him to withhold such information as he thinks unnecessary for us. So Tolkien’s task is made easier by having Gandalf at hand to act as the messenger. As for Frodo – his role here is just as important in  facilitating the story. This whole chapter could have been set up like the Prologue, as a straightforward history (indeed the P. Jackson movie took this approach, and quite effectively I think). But this particular story of the past needs Frodo interacting with it to establish our place in it too – our smallness, our wonder, our fear, our naivety, our curiosity, our thirst for adventure, is bound up with Frodo’s as he reacts to the unfolding narrative. This is the chapter in which Frodo’s peace is shattered forever in Middle-earth. Though he is still physically safe, and though he will be sent some brief moments of external peace, and moments of internal joy later on in the rest of the tale, that complete reassurance from fear and unbridled contentment is now gone.

There is a lot that Frodo says and does in this chapter that sets the foundations for his character’s growth. I’ll pick out two:

1) It is interesting that Frodo’s primary concern is for Bilbo, even after Gandalf has told him the dangers of possessing the Ring (…while Frodo possesses the Ring!): in this small way, Frodo’s love for his uncle is shown rather than merely stated.

2) Frodo reacts with disgust at Gollum – quite naturally given Gollum’s crimes. Unlike his later self, Frodo can only see Gollum through the lens of his crimes.

At no point did Gandalf directly compare Gollum to Frodo himself, but even the very notion that Gollum was of hobbit-kin was repulsive to Frodo. In vain does Gandalf try to get Frodo to view Gollum with some pity, as Bilbo did (re-reading the chapter, I was struck by just how much of the narrative here focuses on the story of Gollum. When I first read it, I could never have known how important he would go on to be – for the story, and for Frodo). What introspection, mortifying realisation, and change must have taken place within Frodo for him to make the shift from revulsion in chapter 2, to empathy by Book 4.

I now wonder if some of Frodo’s fear of Gollum does not reflect the fact that, on a subconscious level, he already sees some of Gollum in himself, a part of himself that he does not like. Sometimes a person’s dislike of something or someone may not be because they are so different; but rather because they are, in fact, so alike – one sees in the other what they are frightened of becoming. They need to voice their opposition to the hideous other (what is actually a hideous reflection of self), in order to warn and ward off what is within themselves.

Let’s focus on one of those flaws. In the previous post, I discussed the Shire-hobbits’ narrow-mindedness, and highlighted how different Frodo was: willing to speak to ‘outsiders’, curious about the white spaces beyond the official borders on local maps, learned of other languages. But actually, Frodo has his own narrow-mindedness, does he not? While he is fond of his fellow hobbits, he is also quite condescending (a point well made by Tom Hillman in his comment on part 3). Many of them will not have enjoyed the privileges he grew up with, courtesy of his wealthy and generous uncle. 

Great secrets and the burden of knowledge

One theme that I’ve noticed on recent re-readings, is the thirst and restlessness to know more: the search for hidden, special or dark secrets. In a beautifully crafted passage, of which I’ll only quote a small part, Gandalf tells us:

‘But as he [Gollum] lowered his eyes, he saw far above the tops of the Misty Mountains, out of which the stream came. And he thought suddenly: “It would be cool and shady under those mountains. The sun could not watch me there. The roots of the mountains must be roots indeed; there must be great secrets there which have not been discovered since the beginning.” (FR, 1, ii: 53) 

Gollum had this gnawing desire to know more. So too did Saruman – at a much higher, learned level, but in essence the same…

‘Hobbits are, or were, no concern of his…The lore of the Elven-rings, great and small, is his province. He has long studied it, seeking the lost secrets of their making…’ (FR, 1, ii: 47)

…and, so too did Frodo:

‘[T]he old paths seemed too well-trodden. He looked at maps and wondered what lay beyond their edges…’ (FR, 1, ii: 42).

Does Gollum’s example – for whom ‘all the “great secrets” under the mountain had turned out to be just empty night…” (FR, 1, ii: 54) – serve as a cautionary tale for both Saruman and Frodo? This is all rather speculative, and I am sure Tolkien’s message here was not that we should not explore or search for new knowledge. In any case, I would be glad to hear your thoughts.


This leads me to a related discussion: the relationship between knowledge, authority and control. A while ago, I read a fascinating piece by Dawn Felagund, who states “I always find Gandalf’s behavior in this section strange and off-putting. He suggests Frodo take a dangerous task based on little more than happenstance alone.” She suggests Gandalf is unfairly dismissive of Frodo’s scepticism and questioning, and is biased towards written history above oral history (i.e. hobbit traditions). This is a very interesting take, and one I have not come across before. But perhaps, to speculate again, Gandalf’s manner of speaking here is deliberate. What if we see this interaction between Gandalf and Frodo as not merely an exposition, but actually a part of Frodo’s training – a training in humility, a training against a search for heroism, against complacency? Gandalf is immensely fond of the hobbit. But this does not mean he does not see flaws in him, flaws which may well be detrimental to the task ahead and endanger Frodo’s life. When analysing Frodo, many rightly acknowledge his humility – but some of this is instilled in him by his mentor. Frodo certainly has a great deal to learn (and unlearn).

Consider how Gandalf reacts to Frodo’s offer of the Ring – he unconditionally refuses it; he better understands the power of the Ring of course, but he also knows his own weakness and susceptibility to the powers of the Ring. Frodo, on the other hand, while he is certainly reluctant to embark on the mission and doubtful of his ability to bear the burden of the task (‘I am not made for perilous quests…why was I chosen?’ FR, 1, ii: 60), does not yet seem to realise his own susceptibility to the Ring’s powers. He is certainly afraid – but it is Sauron, not so much the Ring, that terrifies him (FR, 1, ii: 58). He enquires whether Bilbo will be alright in time, worried about ‘any permanent harm’, but does not enquire about himself! To consider oneself immune would be a danger indeed. Perhaps Frodo is not quite so oblivious to think that; but it is interesting that he never talks (explicitly at least) about his fears of being tempted by the Ring – not in this chapter, and rarely elsewhere in the book. At what point does he, internally at least, admit to what the Ring is doing to him?

Indeed, we (and Gandalf) see the Ring does already have some hold on Frodo – notably when he panics as it is thrown into the fireside of his study. As Prof. Verlyn Flieger so eloquently explains on the Prancing Pony podcast, this sets the scene for a tragedy. How, when Frodo cannot even throw the Ring away in this sleepy corner of the Shire, will he ever do so standing where it was forged, in the epicentre of darkness?

Speaking of the power of the Ring: it is in this chapter that the Ring is personified, spelt with a capital ‘R’ (straight after the discovery of its fiery script in fact), as if it was a sentient character in its own right. It grows and shrinks; it abandons people, hoping and willing to be found by another; it seeks to return to its Master. And it is here that Tolkien weaves in a deliberate ambiguity that will remain throughout the story: where does agency lie, in the Ring or in the Ring-bearer? Which is in control at a given moment – who or what carries responsibility? Or are the two so intertwined it’s impossible to separate them? A frightening thought.

One thing is clear: this confusion, to doubt whether you are fully in control or not, is to lose your freedom. There are two obvious options, 1) to capitulate to temptation: the easy option, but which leads to enslavement and one’s demise (Isildur and Gollum); or 2) to refuse altogether: hard to do, but preserves one’s freedom in the long run (Faramir, Sam and eventually Bilbo). But the task Gandalf now lays on Frodo creates a third scenario: to expose oneself to that temptation, every moment of the day, while resolving to resist it the whole time. This is far harder than outright refusal, far riskier, foolhardy certainly. And for the one who pursues this path for the sake of others, it is a grave act of self-sacrifice. I really don’t think Frodo reckons or knows that is what he is doing at this stage; Gandalf does. That cannot be easy, even for Gandalf. Who knows how much he wrestled with his conscience, to allow Frodo to carry this burden? Did he feel any guilt? He does say he has felt responsible for Frodo (FR, 1, ii: 48). Sadly, knowing he could not expect to separate Frodo from the Ring anyway, may have made the decision easier.

Drawing (top) – is inspired by the following passage:

He [Gandalf] was smoking now in silence, for Frodo was sitting still, deep in thought. Even in the light of the morning he felt the dark shadow of the tidings that Gandalf had brought.” (FR, 1, The Shadow of the Past, p. 45)

Drawing in ink and pencil. I was not happy with this drawing, except for Frodo – I wanted to convey something of his fear. But my nephews liked it, so I kept it.

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21 Responses to Part 4, Reading and Drawing The Lord of the Rings: On Fear, Knowledge and Power

  1. joviator says:

    Re Gollum and Saruman and the wisdom of expanding into the white spaces: The distinction may be in the difference between knowledge and secrets. Learning things and then sharing them among a community keeps us on the right path. Learning things and keeping them to oneself, as a source of power, always ends badly.

    • Earthoak says:

      Thanks, Joe, that’s a great point – an good way to read it, certainly works with Gollum and Saruman. The intention behind the desire to know, and what is done with that knowledge, must make a difference.
      Perhaps also what it does to the individual gives us a clue – for Saruman it adds to his pride; for Gollum it quite literally shuts off the light of the sun. For Gandalf, his knowledge of hobbits acquaints him with them – that lessens him in the eyes of Saruman, and as such shields Gandalf from arrogance. I’m not sure what the knowledge does to Frodo, but it seems to isolate him a little. Thanks again for your comment.

  2. Tom Hillman says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful (as always) discussion of a chapter and questions which I have been writing and thinking about it a lot in recent weeks. I am still wrestling with the Ring. I don’t accept that the Ring is truly sentient, though it certainly is described at times as if it is. The power of the Ring mirrors our desires back at us and thus it seems to possess an agency which is in fact ours. Admittedly, that does not account for everything that seems to be agency or sentience in the Ring, but it accounts for a lot of it. It probably isn’t possible to explain fully how the Ring works, and it probably isn’t meant to be possible. A degree of uncertainty allows much greater play for the character of the person being tempted by the Ring’s power. And the narrative at times puts that uncertainty about the Ring in the foreground for us to see.

    Noticing that we never actually get to hear what Frodo’s temptation is, as we do with Gandalf and Galadriel and Sam and Boromir, is a good catch. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, especially since Frodo is the original narrator of most of the book.

    • joviator says:

      Given JRRT’s predilections, it seems to me that if the Ring were sentient, it would have said something.

      • Earthoak says:

        Like the fox, or William’s magic purse! I am still working out what I think about the Ring. I am inclined to agree that it is not sentient: is the Ring to the Ring-bearer what mercury was to a ‘mad’ hatter? But moments such as Frodo’s struggle on the Seat of Seeing make me wonder.

      • joviator says:

        Tom Shippey pointed out in Author of the Century that Frodo’s behavior with respect to the Ring is familiar to anyone who’s lived around an alcoholic.

      • Earthoak says:

        Yes that analogy works very well -sadly so for the alcoholic, or any addict. It’s been a while since I read Author of the Century, I should pick it up again.

    • Earthoak says:

      Thank you, Tom, for reading and sharing your reflections. That’s a very interesting point that the Ring reflects the desires of the possessor. Yes, you’re right, anytime the Ring might appear to have agency in the story, the event is narrated with a lot of uncertainty, primarily through Frodo, where he admits he cannot tell whether it’s him or the Ring. Given he is under the influence of the Ring, the reader needs to take those observations with a bit of scepticism. That’s another thing that took several years and re-readings for me to conclude – not all the observations relayed to us, chiefly by Frodo for much of the book, are entirely reliable. Not that he isn’t trustworthy, but as with any historical account, it remains one viewpoint with all the natural biases and personal interpretations of one person.
      I very much look forward to reading your own writings on the subject of the Ring, I’m sure it will offer fresh insight.

  3. That’s a wonderful write-up and a great painting!
    Concerning knowledge, I’ve always thought that gaining knowledge is good if one knows their limits and purposes. If knowledge is gained for self-development or in order to create something for the good of others, then it’s good. However, if it’s gained for one’s profit or to access power, then it’s not so good. Besides, one should know when to stop in this knowledge acquisitions and which spheres should be avoided. It seems that gaining knowledge should be properly tamed to be good.

    • Earthoak says:

      Thank you, Olga for coming by and reading – and for your kind words on the picture! (As you can see from my own comment on it, I wasn’t too keen -but I think I will reevaluate…).
      On the subject of knowledge – ‘limits and purpose’: succinct and perceptive, thank you for articulating the point in this way. Yes, I agree, there are some examples where limits to knowledge acquisition might be necessary, precisely because the purpose is destructive. Perhaps the creation and use of the Atom bomb is an example of this – Einstein tried to grapple with his complex part in the A-bomb’s story. I read this article a while back, it reflects some of the dilemmas of defining limits to knowledge: Einstein’s regret comes with hindsight; can appropriate limits to knowledge acquisition be identified without it? Genetic exploration can lead to medical breakthroughs that transform people’s lives for the better – but that same knowledge will also, increasingly, allow people to ‘play god’ in a way that is ethically dubious…a slippery slope? The end of which we cannot foresee. Well…much to ponder on. Thanks again, Olga.

      • It seems that it’s one of the biggest dangers of knowledge: sooner or later one may want to play god or they actually start doing so straight away. Doctor Jekyll and Frankenstein come readily to mind when I think of forbidden knowledge. Both tried to play god and their actions led to disasters. It was only too late when they understood that toying with such perilous matters is no good.

      • Earthoak says:

        Yes, Jekyll and Frankenstein are very good examples – thank you for making the connection.

  4. Saya says:

    This is a wonderful picture and I love all your Tolkien-inspired art, I hope there will be more to come!

    There’s this site/app called Rabbit ( where you can screen-share streamed content to watch remotely with your friends (or random strangers). I was browsing it the other day and there was an open channel watching Fellowship of the Ring, which I haven’t seen for absolutely aeons. It was the scene of the Council of Elrond, where they’re arguing over who is going to take the ring. When Frodo volunteers, Gandalf closes his eyes as if in regret, like he wished it hadn’t come to that. I know you don’t really like the films, but what do you think of that interpretation? I was reminded of the scene reading your post, esp with the idea that Gandalf was preparing him for this mission. So I have a question, which is kind of dark and maybe I’ve got it all wrong (it’s been so long since I’ve read the book): is it possible that Gandalf manipulated Frodo into doing it? Or at the very least, nudged him to it? How much agency did Frodo ever truly have?

    I feel like this is probably an ignorant question that would be answered by reading the book again, but I am still interested in your thoughts!

    • Earthoak says:

      Thank you, Saya, for your thoughtful comment/ query – that’s very interesting, I’ve been reflecting a lot on your question. In some subtle but significant ways, the film alters and adds things which actually alter some important philosophical trajectories in the text. A blatant example of this might be the removal of the role of luck from the (dire) Hobbit films. Another might be film-Aragorn’s supposed reluctance to pursue his calling as King. And then there is the example you pointed out – it works quite well in the film, and shows Gandalf’s concern for Frodo. But I don’t really see that in the book. There’s a key line in this chapter where Gandalf tells Frodo there is only one way to destroy the Ring, to cast it into Oroduin… “if you really wish to destroy it…”. He does seem to place the onus on Frodo here. It is Frodo who points out that while he wants to see the Ring destroyed (..does he though?), he doesn’t think he is the one to do it. Gandalf then reassures him that he was chosen (by Providence) and that he will help Frodo in his task (at least to carry the Ring to Rivendell – Gandalf does not fully reveal here what he thinks/ knows Frodo’s eventual role will be). Everything Gandalf says in this chapter points towards encouragement, while also preparing him for the dangers involved.

      Was Frodo manipulated? Gandalf is no doubt persuasive. But when the truth is as compelling as this, it ought to be persuasive. I’m not sure that counts as manipulation, I can’t see that any information was distorted here to sway Frodo’s mind. But did Gandalf deliberately provide Frodo with this knowledge with a hope that he would eventually volunteer to carry the Ring? Yes, I think so. Gandalf was also the one who helped persuade Bilbo to leave the Ring to Frodo in the first place. In that sense Gandalf is right to feel responsible for Frodo’s safety. But he was not responsible for the Ring landing in the Shire, and as long as Frodo possessed the Ring he (and Middle-earth) would always be in danger anyway. So what choice did Gandalf have, apart from taking the Ring from Frodo and ‘breaking his mind’ in the process.

      Even so, I think you’re right to point out there is something troubling here – or rather, it is difficult for us to grasp the fact Gandalf knows Frodo will not come out of this unscathed. He predicts Frodo’s physical demise in ‘Many Meetings’, but makes no objections when Frodo offers to take the Ring to Mordor. But, I suppose, according to religious tradition, prophets not only sacrificed themselves, but also inspired great sacrifices from their helpers, such was their certainty in their mission and the wisdom of Providence. Similarly, Gandalf trusts Providence and will not interfere*. He is a leader, he has charisma, he is trustworthy, and by dint of that fact others (though certainly not all) listen and follow and are loyal. Frodo, to his credit, proves himself to be foremost among them. ..I’m sure other readers have more thoughts on this, please do add them!

      *Do have a read of Stephen Winter’s blog post and discussion on related themes. (

      Apologies, this has become a very long answer, but I very much appreciated your question.

      Thank you too for your kind feedback on the drawing – I suppose I didn’t really like my depiction of Gandalf, he does not have enough gravitas, and should not really be wearing his hat indoors. But on reflection I’m happy with the ‘morning light’ and the main thing I wanted to convey was the connection between Gandalf and Frodo. Yes, more drawings in the pipeline – and a few more under ‘Artwork’ on the homepage menu, glad you like them :).

      • Saya says:

        Thanks so much for your thoughtful and detailed reply! I’ve been letting everything you said percolate in my mind for a few days, and I’ve begun now to see the entire Gandalf-Frodo relationship in a different light. I would’ve said my original conception of them would have been as something akin to guardian and ward, where I would have said it was the guardian’s moral duty to ensure his ward’s safety. But with your interpretations, I feel like were going more towards a master-disciple relationship, perhaps even with a parental undertone (in a good way). There comes a time in every such relationship where the master or the parent has to, to greater or lesser degree, let their disciple/child go, to carry out their own ‘missions’, to make their own choices and mistakes, and they can only help by equipping them with the fortitude they need (be that physical, emotional, moral, spiritual).

        Even when the master/parents know they’ll be tried and tested, when they know they’ll be hurt (maybe even killed), they can’t stand in their way. It’s an act of recognising their growth into their own agency. In LotR, it’s a coming-of-age that comes with the highest possible stakes – the fate of all the world.

        It’s a lot to think about, thank you so much for analysing that relationship in such an unusual way. Looking forward to your next post, as always!

      • Earthoak says:

        Dear Saya, thank you for such a thoughtful comment. I really appreciate it. Sorry for not replying sooner – but I think you already made a strong case here and I had very little to add! Some of what you said ties in with the comment from K8Neville below. Yes I think the master (or let’s say teacher) and disciple relation works well here – especially considering Gandalf has other disciples, such as Aragorn and Faramir. It’s notable they can all relate to each other via their personal and mutual connections with Gandalf.

  5. Pingback: The Anti-Gollum – Idiosophy

  6. k8neville says:

    I’m beginning to see parallels between Gandalf and Frodo. Gandalf essentially asks Frodo to do what he and all the Istari have been doing for centuries: walk alongside great power while resisting the temptation to use it. The strength of hobbits is like that of Gandalf, an openness to pity. But it also turns out to be Frodo’s undoing, much as Gandalf feared for himself.

    • Earthoak says:

      Thanks so much for reading and sharing your insights – what a great point. We think of their physical toils and troubles, but the psychological, internal battles and struggles of the Istari are surely greater. You comment also confirms why Frodo is eventually so esteemed by the wise – only a few can truly appreciate what it meant and what it took to do what he did. Thank you again.

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