The Fellowship of The Ring: The Shadow of the Past
This chapter holds a lot of backstory, drawing from Tolkien’s mythology to weave the faerie tale of The Hobbit into this heroic epic. It could be considered dry because of all the exposition, but I think of it as Tolkien putting stories into a story that loves talking about stories.
Also, this chapter holds some of my all-time favourite quotes. More on that later!
The comfortable ‘not yet’
The familiar tension from The Hobbit between Bilbo’s Took and Baggins natures is clearly at work in Frodo when the chapter opens. Frodo was, for years, quite content with country walks, good food, and all the comforts of Bag End. But like his uncle Bilbo before him, Frodo just needs the right push to set him on the path down the road from his door—the place where all adventures begin.
Frodo takes to wandering under the stars alone and I can only imagine the existential musings of a hobbit, but I suspect they’re much like our own. Whatever questions of purpose and meaning Frodo entertained on such walks, his answer to whether he would take a step outside his comfortable little world was always “not yet.”
That Frodo faces these questions most pointedly in autumn is something I’m familiar with. I’m always dreaming up new projects or wistfully looking out for a crunchy lane to tramp down when the leaves start falling. Autumn impresses the need to make the most of what we have, to do something with the harvest we have, be it talents, dreams, or a golden bushel of apples.
But autumn is also the perfect time to pull on another layer, put on the kettle, and say ‘not yet.” The shadows of both the past and the present are converging over Bag End and Frodo will soon to have less say in the matter; still enough say to show his virtue, though.
Stories in a story about stories
The first whisperings of the growing shadow come in the form of travellers tales resembling storybooks more than news. Samwise Gamgee is again our guide in this.
Sam’s conversation with Ted Sandyman pits the enchanted faith of Bag End’s gardener against the suspicious skepticism of the miller’s son. It’s almost like hearing Tolkien answer his critics on the value of faerie stories—“who invented the stories anyway?”—but Ted will not abandon the bounds of his experience; he is convinced the only dragon worth worrying about is the green one he’s drinking his beer in.
For a hobbit in a medieval fantasy, Ted is remarkably similar to many in late-modern 2017. Ted likes walled gardens; he likes his stories to stay by the fireside and his truth to be visible. A small world is one easily controlled and understood. His self is very much buffered in the sense Charles Taylor describes in his work A Secular Age. Sam’s is as porous as a sponge.
The news, or stories, depending on your outlook, about giants on the Shire’s borders and other strange comings and goings reach Sam with plausibility. How could someone see an elm tree walk across the moors if there is no elm tree there to imagine walking? Ted’s answer is that they can’t have seen one, but this is an argument from nothing, whereas Sam’s belief in the witness of his cousin Hal is at least embodied by the trustworthiness of Hal’s eyes.
I could go down this rabbit hole for more than a thousand words, easily, so let it suffice to say that Ted is defined by suspicion and his skepticism doesn’t lead to inquiry; it shuts inquiry down to maintain comfort. Sam, while a lover of comforts, is easily moved when it comes to things as wonderful and enchanted as elves.
‘They are sailing, sailing, sailing over the sea, they are going into the west and leaving us,’ said Sam, half chanting the words and shaking his head sadly and solemnly.
Sam may be a simple gardener, but there’s more on his mind than the simple concerns of most hobbits. He’s open, if not inviting, to the world outside of himself—he glimpses the wonder that’s there, and longs to get a closer look.
Given; not chosen
Gandalf returns after years away to test and confirm the Ring’s true nature. He also gives Frodo a history lesson. You may be tempted to gloss over it, but don’t, because it’s grounded in questions of virtue and character that form a key thread running through the rest of the story. Gandalf pretty much lays out the moral centre of The Lord of the Rings here.
When it’s revealed that Frodo’s magic ring is the One Ring of the Dark Lord of Mordor, the “shadow at the border of old stories” falls heavily on Bag End. The more Gandalf explains, the more inescapable the peril becomes and the more Frodo is terrified. Then he makes the most obvious admission: Frodo wishes the shadow of Sauron had not fallen on his life.
‘So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given us.”
Gandalf’s focus in his response on the givenness of life is not an easy truth, but it is a freeing one. It’s telling that as Gandalf continues tracing the path of the Ring from Sauron’s finger to Frodo’s waistcoat pocket, Frodo thinks of all the ways things might’ve been different. If only Bilbo had never found the Ring! But Gandalf is quick to point out how that would likely mean the Enemy would already possess it, so the lengthening shadow of the present is indeed a “dreadful chance.”
This inscrutable providence will come up again and again as we make our way through the story, referred to as fortune, doom, and various other terms by Tolkien. It comes up again in this chapter actually,
‘It was not Gollum, Frodo, but the Ring itself that decided things. The Ring left him.’
‘What, just in time to meet Bilbo?’ said Frodo. ‘Wouldn’t an Orc have suited it better?’
‘It is no laughing matter,’ said Gandalf. ‘Not for you. It was the strangest event in the whole history of the Ring so far: Bilbo’s arrival just at that time, and putting his hand on it, blindly, in the dark.
‘There was more than one power at work, Frodo. The Ring was trying to get back to its master. It had slipped from Isildur’s hand and berayed him; then when a chance came it caught poor Déagol, and he was murdered; and after that Gollum, and it had devoured him. It could make no further use of him: he was too small and mean; and as long as it stayed with him he would never leave his deep pool again. So now, when its master was awake once more and sending out his dark thought from Mirkwood, it abandoned Gollum. Only to be picked up by the most unlikely person imaginable: Bilbo from the Shire!
‘Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.
Such beauty! What depth! Frodo’s appropriately awed response?
‘It is not.’
Frodo’s earnest response here is refreshing, not because I think Gandalf is misrepresenting the situation, but because it’s an appropriately human response. I was meant to be thrust into this impossibly dangerous and life-threatening situation on purpose? I’d prefer to be destined for more second-breakfasts, thank you very much. But here is the whole pivot point of the story; the narrative thread that runs from beginning to end: what will Frodo do with the time that is given him?
First of all he’ll admit how scared he is of the whole business; there is no hubris in Frodo (or any of the hobbits, really). Then he’ll give an equally earthy reply to the news that the Enemy knows the name of Baggins and of the existence of The Shire.
‘For now I am really afraid. What am I to do? What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!’
Frodo is still grasping for solutions in the past, but they’re smoke; visible, untouchable wisps of possibility. Gandalf again brings focus back to the present and calls attention to the long shadow cast by unseen hope.
The wizard agrees with Frodo. It was pity that kept Gollum from the point of Bilbo’s sword, pity, and mercy not to strike without need—even a creature like Gollum, who deserves death. He reminds us the good die and the evil prosper, yet we shouldn’t be quick to “deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many—yours not the least.
Pity and mercy are the moral foundation The Lord of the Rings is built on and I’ll be highlighting them as I make my way through the story.
Frodo knows he isn’t made for perilous quests, but here he is, wanting the Ring to be destroyed, not wanting to face danger, but also not wanting darkness to descend on his home. He cannot stay with the Ring, and Gandalf won’t take the Ring for fear of becoming a conduit for its evil; Frodo is left as the only suitable bearer, at least for now.
The quiet ‘not yet’ of Frodo’s autumn walks becomes a quietly brave ‘ought.’ “I cannot keep the Ring and stay here. I ought to leave Bag End, leave the Shire, leave everything and go away.” Frodo knows this won’t be an adventure as he’s typically imagined it, but rather a “flight from danger into danger, drawing it after [him].”
This is the situation Frodo finds himself in. He could wish it to be otherwise, but it’s not, so he does what he believe he ought to do in the face of things just as they are, just as he’s meant to. It also happens that Samwise Gamgee is meant to meet the elves, and so the chapter ends in tears.
I’m not crying, you’re crying. I'm just crying because Sam is so happy he's going to see the elves that he's crying, ok, enough of this. The quest officially gets underway in Chapter 3: Three is Company.