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.