“A Shadow of the Past” is the first of two main exposition chapters, the other, of course, being Book Two’s “The Council of Elrond”. I would consider this one more important because, at this early stage, the exposition is way more important. By the time Elrond comes around, we’re fully aware of the magnitude of the quest and what has to be done, its mostly just filling stuff out and introducing new characters.
We’ve set the scene in the Shire, and established the Ring as being quite bad, its time to get more into the nitty gritty.
But before all that, there’s Frodo. The first few pages give us a glimpse of the 17 years between chapters, and Frodo’s increasing need to travel and go out beyond the borders of the Shire. You get a sense of Frodo being stuck in the shadow of his Uncle. Sure, he’s the Master of Bag End, and has lots of money and friends, but he’s always identified as the nephew of “Mad Baggins”. This is our first real bit of development for Frodo and its effective, in that we, unlike the Shire residents, start to see him as more than just “Bilbo’s heir”. Bilbo had adventure thrust upon him, pretty much against his will; Frodo is seeking it, waiting for it to come along.
Before we get into the meat and bones of the chapter, we need a bit more foreshadowing. Tolkien achieves this through the use of outsiders suddenly increasing in number in the area, bringing news of trouble far away. The sense that some dark terror that even the hobbits are aware of “like a shadow on the borders of old stories”, an excellent description, is beginning to threaten the world is done in a good subtle way here. Aficionados of The Hobbit will immediately see the link between the two books here: a “dark power in Mirkwood” has re-established itself in Mordor. This dark power was given the name “Necromancer” in The Hobbit, in what seemed like a standard bit of universe padding. Whatever the intention, its one of the few times that The Hobbit offers us a proper glimpse of whats to come in The Lord of the Rings.
Onto the second pub scene, where we get our first introduction to Sam. His discussion with the Miller’s son re-emphasises the pariah like nature of the Sandyman family, while giving us a bit more info on the surrounding world – especially the fact that the Elvish race are apparently leaving Middle Earth en masse.
But this conversation is much more important for telling us all about Sam, one of the most important, arguably the most important, character in the story. Through this brief bit of dialogue (between two people who don’t even like each other) we learn a lot about Sam: he’s a devoted son, good friends with Frodo, an admirer of Bilbo, sociable, friendly, obsessed with old tales and life outside the Shire (especially elves) and a dependable person. Even while arguing about universe-altering events, his mind is on gardening work the following day. This is all at the core of the Sam character. He doesn’t really come into his own for a good bit yet, in fact on the surface his portrayal in the later part of this chapter is almost that of a bumbling, idiotic fool with his head in the clouds. But he has characteristics that will help him to achieve greatness.
Frodo’s story is basically Jesus: taking on the burden of the worlds evil and struggling on. Sam is all about the underdog becoming a champion of the ages, of the peasant from humble beginnings working his way up to the savior of the world. It all starts with this snippet of conversation in a pub, but the essence of the character is set.
We also get a brief mention of talking, walking trees. Chekov’s Gun in action.
Gandalf comes back and he and Frodo lash into the exposition. It’s the history of the Ring told in two main parts: it’s forging and wars that resulted in the defeat of Sauron, and the Rings time with Gollum.
This is The Lord of the Rings‘ introduction to the Gollum character and its all misery and woe: Tolkien does a fine job in making the former Ring-bearer as twisted and messed up as possible with this little backstory, from his murder of Deagol, all the way to his imprisonment in Mordor. “Wretched” is the word used over and over again.
The discussion of Gollum leads us to some of the most well-known parts of the text:
“…He deserves death”
“Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. Many that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be to eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends…My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end…the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many…”
It’s an excellent passage that shows us the intrinsic humanity and mercy within the Gandalf character: he has seen the most corrupted, most “wretched” result of the Rings machinations, a killer, a liar and a thief. Yet he still believes in rehabilitation and redemption. It’s the beginning of the long road to a sort of redemption for the Gollum character, that culminates in the events of “Mount Doom”. Gandalf kicks it off here, and his role as advisor/mentor to Frodo will never be more important.
It’s also at the heart of the general good vs evil theme of the book: the good guys don’t kill when they don’t have to.
Gandalf also posits the theory that the seemingly random set of coincidences that put the Ring in Frodo’s hands indicate that a larger power may be at work. Gandalf doesn’t say “God” even though, as fans of The Silmarillion will know, he pretty much knows that Middle-Earths “God” actually exists, but that’s the implication. An interesting thought, but not one that the book ever really goes into again.
Gandalf is also name dropping important characters left, right and centre here: Aragorn, Saruman, the Ringwraiths etc. He’s also the first person to give the bad guy a name - the noticeably evil sounding “Sauron” - all while giving Frodo both a history and geography lesson. “The Shadow of the Past” is Gandalf at his expositional best, regaling his audience with tales of long ago and feats of epic danger. Frodo gets little development in the latter part of this chapter, as he is relegated to basically asking all the questions that the reader must have.
The power of the Ring is showcased again, in both an obvious (the fire writing) and unobvious (Frodo’s inability to throw it into the fire) fashion. But the book then falls victim to a typical problem with in the genre of fantasy: the powers of the Ring, beyond invisibility, do not get clearly defined. We are merely told that the object contains a great deal of Sauron’s former power and that if he gets a hold of it again, he’ll be unstoppable. But if that’s so, why was he “stoppable” at the end of the Second Age? And just what will the Ring actually do for Sauron at the end of the day? We never really know. We’re told that others – like Aragorn, and maybe Boromir - could use the Ring to beat Sauron, but we are never told how exactly. It is like a Green Lantern ring or what?
The chapter ends with Frodo’s quest being layed out before him: the Ring has to be destroyed and he’s the Ring-bearer. The option is left open for someone else to take on the burden, but really, does anyone really think for a second that that’s going to happen? All that suggestion does is leave the possibility that Frodo might give it up to someone else himself, but we all can tell that it’s a slim one. Any actual specifics for the quest, beyond destroying the damn thing and keeping it away from the bad guys, are left for the next chapter to elaborate on.
Frodo takes up the challenge of the quest, for a while anyway, showing us that he has some spine and courage at any rate. This rather serious chapter ends fairly light-heartedly with the Sam stuff, which is a decent way to break the tension.
The movie reduced this entire episode of course, keeping only the crucial bits – the fire writing, the poetry, the outline of the quest and Frodo’s acceptance. A quick montage beforehand covers some of Gandalf’s travels and Gollums time in Mordor. It’s all more tension filled: in the book, it takes place in the middle of the day as the characters relax, in the movie its at night with a stressed and dishevelled looking Gandalf and a terrified Frodo. Sam’s role is again used as a comedic tension breaker, effectively. It’s a decent adaptation of the chapter, slimmed down to a more manageable format.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.