(Updated on 19/07/2022)
“The 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. A lot of questions have been raised in the readers mind by the events of the first chapter, and Tolkien, to his credit, isn’t going to be drawing things out for too long. By the time Elrond comes around, we’re fully aware of the magnitude of the quest and what has to be done, it’s mostly just filling stuff out and introducing new characters. The bedrock of the story that Tolkien wants to tell is being revealed here and now.
We’ve set the scene in the Shire, and established the Ring as being quite bad, so it’s 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, a quite sizable amount of time, and Frodo’s increasing need to travel and go out beyond the borders of the Shire, to those “white spaces” on the maps. You get a sense of Frodo being stuck in the shadow of his Uncle. Sure, he’s the Master of Bag End – I do like that a moment is taken to acknowledge the simple pleasure of Frodo being “the Mr Baggins of Bag End” – and has lots of money and friends, but he’s always identified primarily as the nephew of “Mad Baggins“, in no way seen as simply his own man. The Shire, keeping that rural streak, passes the attributes of the father (figure) to the son, and it’s easy to imagine them all describing Frodo as “queer” or “cracked” down in the pub, and blaming it on Bilbo’s influence and his Buckland heritage. Resentment over Frodo’s ability to withstand the perils of time also starts to show up fast: “Some folk have all the luck“.
This opening section of the chapter is our first real bit of development for Frodo and it’s valuable, in that we, unlike the Shire residents, start to see him as more than just “Bilbo’s heir”, even if he still holds true to many of his uncle’s traditions, like the lavish birthday parties. Bilbo had adventure thrust upon him, pretty much against his will; Frodo wants some adventure to come along, and is eagerly awaiting it. But still he has that grounded side to him, the voice that says “Not yet”, not unlike his uncle. Tolkien makes sure to note Frodo’s dreams of “wild lands” and “mountains”, which amount to “strange visions”. Frodo’s odd dreams will be a recurring point of interest in Book One, and that starts here. More worryingly, Frodo exhibits signs of a malaise, enough that those few close to him begin to worry: “Frodo began to feel restless…Merry and his other friends watched him anxiously.”
Before we get into the meat and bones of the chapter, we need a bit more foreshadowing, with “The Shadow Of The Past” opening much like “A Long Expected Party” in terms of narrative style. Tolkien achieves this through the use of outsiders suddenly increasing in number in the area, bringing news of trouble far away. This fact is introduced in connection with Frodo, often to be seen talking with these newcomers, effectively connecting the different parts of these sections and re-emphasising the popular “cracked” perception of Frodo. The idea of strangers appearing in areas they had previously never been in will come up a few times in Book One: in fact it already has, in the form of an anonymous stranger who joins the talk in the pub with Hamfast Gamgee in the first chapter. 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 introduced in a good way here, subtle in its practical description, but momentous in everything that is being implied. 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 without much substance, an excuse for Tolkien to leave the dwarfs without Gandalf’s assistance at a critical moment. Whatever the intention, it’s one of the few times that The Hobbit offers us a proper glimpse of what’s to come in The Lord of the Rings. It’s not the only connection to The Hobbit in these pages, as mention is made of trolls, “no longer dull-witted“, becoming a threat, presumably a reference to the easily out-witted Tom Bert and William from “Roast Mutton”. Things are changing, and those kinds of enemies are not going to be the problem now.
Onto the second pub scene, a replica in some ways of the first in terms of location, general topic and the speakers being the descendants of those that came before, where we get our first proper introduction to Sam. His discussion with the Miller’s son is a bit friendlier than the one shared by their respective parents in the last chapter, giving us a bit more info on the surrounding world – especially the fact that the Elvish race are apparently leaving Middle Earth en masse “and were no longer concerned with its troubles“. We’ll be getting more into that in Book Two, but it adds something to the general air of impending doom, that even the mystical creatures the hobbits are barely aware of are hightailing it out of the continent.
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 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 fool with his head in the clouds. But he has characteristics that will help him to achieve greatness, and we can see that straight away.
Frodo’s story is basically Jesus: taking on the burden of the world’s 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 savoir 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. It would be easy to dismiss this as just a flight of fancy from Sam, which is certainly how others in this scene treat the idea, but of course we will be coming back to it. Looking ahead, it’s fascinating to imagine just what it was this person saw: was it actually an Ent, and if so why were they so far from Fangorn? Were they looking for the Entwives again? Or was it an Entwife? Or a Huorn? Or was it nothing at all? The possibilities build up, but we will never know.
Gandalf comes back, looking “older and more careworn“, and he and Frodo lash into the exposition after a friendly interlude (contrasted sharply with the film version, where a ragged and stressed Gandalf makes the whole thing more desperate and dark). It’s the real history of the Ring told in two main parts: its forging and wars that resulted in the defeat of Sauron, and the Ring’s time with Gollum. It’s good that this massive avalanche of information is split in this way, since it stops the narrative from getting too dull. Frodo assumes the rule of a passive listener, only jumping in with questions when the flow of Gandalf’s lecture needs to change, from the forging of the Rings of Power, to the war with Sauron, to the creation of Gollum and so on and so forth. The dynamic between the two is set early, but there’s no problem with just reading Gandalf talk, because the guy can talk well.
I’m not going to get too bogged down with minute analysis of the resulting lecture, but it is something to be read. Gandalf crafts an intriguing narrative of far away events, great battles and world altering outcomes, changing to tales of soul-crushing tragedy and loss, culminating in this conversation the two are having, thousands of years hence. It’s not a “tell, not show” exercise in boredom, it’s a wonderful story within the story. It’s great that Tolkien can imbue what could have been just a crawl through required information with such weight. Stuff like this can be considered weak today, but this chapter shows it can be done properly. I remember, clearly, reading this chapter for the first time and loving it, of being thrown into this vast and different world, which had its own amazing history. It made it feel more real, more tangible.
It culminates in a verbal crescendo with the reciting of the famous “ring verse” which is printed on the first few pages of most editions:
Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them,
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
It’s a fascinating bit of writing, with its vagueness actually adding to the appeal. So much history and loss is built into these words, and so much can be read: who were these “Elven-kings” and “Dwarf-lords“, why did “Mortal Men” get nine? And what does it mean that the “One Ring” has to power to find and bind all of the others “in the darkness“? That crescendo comes with the second last line, which we can imagine spoken with power, like Sauron must have spoken the words, before a more quiet repetition of that haunting description of the Dark Lord’s domain.
The first part of Gandalf’s lecture is generally all epic high fantasy, full of ancient tales and terrible prophecies, Tolkien tapping in to all of his studies as a scholar. It’s here that the wizard gives a grim report of what it means if Sauron recovers the Ring, namely that he will regain all of his former power and essentially be unstoppable, “stronger than ever“. Sauron’s obsession is well-characterised in these pages: “So he is seeking it, seeking it, and all his thought is bent on it.” These are our stakes then: the One Ring is not just a magical trinket that would be of some use to Sauron, it is an innate totem of his power, where the unification of the two would create an evil force whose power would be incredible. It’s a massive concept for someone like Frodo to have to deal with, speaking as they are on a pleasant morning in the Shire.
The second part of the conversation is more personal, but no less great. This is The Lord of the Rings‘ introduction to the Gollum character and it’s 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 curiosity of hidden things leading him to trouble, to the murder of Deagol (as good an example of the Ring’s immediate ability to impart its evil as you are likely to ever get), the gradual corruption of the Ring, its loss, all the way to his imprisonment in Mordor. “Wretched” is the word used over and over again. For Gollum nothing seems to have ever gone right, and Tolkien skilfully conjures up memories of “Riddles In The Dark” in our mind, of this horrible gangrel creature that Bilbo was compelled to spare (as Gandalf talks, we might also notice that every changeover of the Ring to someone else is accompanied by violence, save the last one). The story helps to paint a picture of a character who will dominate the last two thirds of the entire book, a pitiable creature whose words must be watched constantly for falsehood and lies, who constantly feels himself to be the wronged party and who carries with him a danger in word and deed that cannot be underestimated. It’s a well-constructed introduction, that really paints a picture hundreds of pages before Gollum actually shows up. The Ring’s evil has created in Gollum the most tangible example of the destruction it can create.
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 too 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 Ring’s machinations, a creature transformed into a killer, a liar and a thief. Yet he still believes in rehabilitation and salvation, and displays an obvious sympathy for Gollum (at the same time, it also seems as if Gandalf was perfectly happy to do some “enhanced” interrogation of Gollum, described as “the fear of fire“, which speaks less well of the wizard). It’s the beginning of the long road to a sort of redemption for the Gollum character, which will culminate in the events of “Mount Doom“. Gandalf kicks it off here, and his role as advisor/mentor to Frodo will never be more important in that regard. Frodo mindlessly wonders why Bilbo didn’t simply kill this obstacle in his way – a surprising thing to hear from a hobbit, when you think about it – and Gandalf is on hand to guide him to the right line of thinking. It’s 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. They still make mistakes though, and it is notable that Gandalf admits to doing so here, in his decision to “let the matter be” regards Gollum for far too long.
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. Organised religion and worship of deities is something that The Lord of the Rings forgoes, for reasons I’ll get into in another chapter. Gandalf’s musings on predestination here are, somewhat, as far as Tolkien will go in terms of Middle-Earth’s specific higher powers. For Frodo, it comes as little comfort at that moment: “Fear seemed to stretch out a vast hand, like a dark cloud rising in the East and looming up to engulf him.”
Gandalf is name dropping important characters left, right and centre here: Aragorn, Saruman, the Ringwraiths etc, and it can all become a bit of a blur. The last one is the most important, given a flowery description of their status as some of Sauron’s most deadly servants. From its placement, you’d think they might show up before the end, but not almost straight away in the next chapter. Gandalf is 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 (seriously, how evil does “Sauron” sound?). “The Shadow of the Past” is Gandalf at his expositional best, regaling his audience with tales of long ago and feats of epic danger, while also imparting plot-critical information. We could certainly stand to hear more about these “great deeds that were not wholly in vain” but that will be for a later time. 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, a required surrogate if we are going to move things along.
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. Frodo’s dependence on the Ring was clear only a day after he first received it, so it’s not hard to believe that, 17 years later, he might be unwilling to risk damaging it. He’s reluctant to trust Gandalf with it at all, and is momentarily horrified when it seems to be in danger. When he looks into the hearth near the end of the chapter and thinks of the “fabled Cracks of Doom and the terror of the Fiery Mountain”, we might well wonder if his thoughts are of terror that he might die, or terror that he might succeed.
Much more interesting really is Gandalf’s reaction when it comes to ownership of the Ring. Frodo makes the kneejerk decision to offer the Ring to him, and the wizard recoils, horrified at both the offer and the temptation to accept:
“‘No!’ cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. ‘With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly.’ His eyes flashed and his face was lit as by a fire within. ‘Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself.'”
He has to hammer the message into Frodo: the Ring can’t belong to somebody with genuine power. Hobbits’ innate nature, of peace, tranquillity and a lack of pretensions is what makes them the best Ring-bearers. Gandalf is another being entirely. I suppose you could say that this is a convenient thing for Tolkien to decide, but I think that it fits, and it shows Gandalf as somebody who is imperfect himself, lacking the moral stature needed to resist the Ring’s evil.
But the book then falls victim to a typical problem within the genre of fantasy: the powers of the Ring, beyond the direct powers of invisibility and increased life span, 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 find out. We’re told that others – like Aragorn, and maybe Boromir – could use the Ring to defeat Sauron, but we are never told how exactly. Of course, the “One Ring” is that meant to “rule them all”, granting power over other Ring users, laying bare the things that they have done or are hiding. But most of those rings are either gone or have been recovered by Sauron and “the Three” can simply stop using them if they have to, just as they did before. The powers of the three – well, one of them anyway, in the actual text – also have a lacklustre description, but we’ll get to them in time.
There are other things too, stuff that the book itself will hint at – being able to dominate the minds of others, to project a more powerful image, translating Black Speech – and some stuff that Tolkien wrote about in his letters. In the end, the Ring is a cipher for the power of whoever is bearing it, “according to his stature” as Gandalf posits in regards Gollum. If they are powerful, disciplined and have the will, they can bring its abilities to the fore, but only if they already have those internal attributes. Hobbits, they just don’t have that. In fact, that might be why, for them, invisibility is the result, an extension of their described ability to be sneaky and stealthy (then again, Isildur could turn invisible too, so maybe not). People like Gandalf, Galadriel, Aragorn, even Boromir or his father, they might be able to take up the Ring and wield it. But that would be bad, with no good outcome possible.
The chapter ends with Frodo’s quest being laid 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 at some point, 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. Even Gandalf pushes Frodo into this, mentioning on several occasions that “you have been chosen” and “you also were meant to have it” and “Have you decided what to do?” (emphasis mine). We might feel some of the frustration Frodo declares with Gandalf, who has sat on the information he suspected about the Ring for a long time, now leaving him in his present situation, where his “perilous” yet “precious” heirloom is something he seems bound to take on a long journey for its destruction. Even now, Frodo’s attachment to the Ring is uncomfortably obvious, and you have to question Gandalf’s thinking in some ways: how can he possibly believe that Frodo will be capable of sending the Ring to its destruction? Any actual specifics for the quest, beyond destroying the 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: though, I suppose it’s easy to say you’ll do this and that when the actual process of what you have to do is far away. He does it for the Shire in the end, and for the thought that whatever he is doing out there will keep things safe back home: “And I suppose I must go alone, if I am to do that and save the Shire“. That’s a noble sentiment. Gandalf’s words seem to have gotten through to Frodo, as much as they do with the reader: “all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us”. That being said, there is a terrible irony already being developed, in so far as Frodo goes on his quest to protect the Shire, which gets turned into a tyrannical police state in his absence. The “Scouring” will be among the last of a series of very painful moments for Frodo Baggins.
This rather serious chapter ends fairly light-heartedly with the Sam stuff, which is a decent way to break the tension. As I said before, he’s shown up as a bit of a bumpkin, eavesdropping on others and then terrified that Gandalf will turn him into something “unnatural”. But aside from the comedy, Sam’s sudden intrusion has a larger purpose. The first part of The Lord of the Rings is The Fellowship of the Ring. That fellowship has to be created, and in the style of any great story, it has to be assembled gradually. It isn’t quite the Avengers or Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, but we do have to get them altogether one at a time. Frodo is in, obviously, and Gandalf, with some future members already namedropped in this chapter. But it’s already time to start branching out. Sam is the third, and with Frodo he’ll go further than anyone else. Sam, we can’t suspect anything of, besides some nosy curiosity. In comparison, we might already be wondering if maybe Gandalf is being a bit manipulative of his own accord despite his wonderfully worded support of Frodo: “I will help you bear this burden, as long as it is yours to bear.” The prospect is both enticing and scary, and another great Tolkien closing line describes the result of this mix of emotions: “‘Me, go and see Elves and all! Hooray!’ he shouted, and then burst into tears.”
“The Shadow Of The Past” works as both an exposition chapter, as a time in the story to introduce Sam, to elaborate a bit on what the Ring really is and why it is so dangerous, and to show Frodo as more than just “Bilbo’s heir”. It does all of this, and maybe only falls down when it comes to some vague generalities and a feeling of disjointedness, as we jump to different topics and tones throughout the course of the Gandalf/Frodo conversation. But the story is tripping along nicely now: the audience is aware of the stakes, the danger involved and the requirement that Frodo take this terrible thing and go on a vast journey. Though we have only known Frodo for a short while, it’s exciting to see him prepare to fulfil his ambition of finally going on his own adventure. Next time, we’ll see that adventure really start.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.