Friday, May 24, 2024

Lord of the Rings Re-Read: The Shadow of the Past

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“[Sméagol] was interested in roots and beginnings; he dived deep into pools, he burrowed under trees and growing plants; he tunneled into green mounds; he ceased to look up at the hilltops, or the leaves on trees, or the flowers opening in the air: his head and eyes were downward.”

Welcome back! New month, new chapter of The Lord of the Rings. I was a bit tentative to dive into this month’s section. I remember “The Shadow of the Past” as little more than a long stretch of back-story, the sort of thing that readers complain about when they claim that Tolkien is boring or poorly-paced. In terms used in relation to modern fantasy writing, it’s an info-dump chapter.

…And that’s not entirely wrong. It is an info-dump chapter. But from a literary perspective it’s an exceptionally well-crafted one, which makes the mythological deeply personal, and clearly lays out many of the story’s over-arching themes without ever getting too heavy-handed. Once again, I’m left with the feeling that Tolkien knew exactly what he was doing.

“The Shadow of the Past” and The Role of Stories

“The Shadow of the Past” opens immediately with a story: “The second disappearance of Mr. Bilbo Baggins was discussed in Hobbiton, and indeed all over the Shire, for a year and a day, and was remembered much longer than that. It became a fire-side story for young hobbits; and eventually Mad Baggins, who used to vanish with a bang and a flash and reappear with bags of jewels and gold, became a favorite character of legend and lived on long after all the true events were forgotten.” While this works as a nice transition from the previous chapter, it’s also so important to The Lord of the Rings as a whole: the focus on the purpose of stories, their relationship to the present, and how characters see themselves as balanced on the precipice of becoming a part of stories themselves. This is especially true for Sam, something we’ll come back to later in The Fellowship of the Ring.

This focus on stories is there right at the start of the chapter, in the conversation at The Green Dragon between Sam Gamgee and Ted Sandyman, the Miller’s son. It’s a direct echo of the conversation between Sam’s and Ted’s fathers in “A Long-Expected Party” (they are, in a sense, already part of an ongoing story themselves). Both of them feature a face-off between a Gamgee and a Sandyman over oddities arising in the Shire, both take place at an inn, both feature crowds of on-looking hobbits. But while the older generation talked about Bilbo’s oddities and strange deaths in his family history, the younger generation has moved onto dragons, strange visitors passing through the Shire, and sightings of giant “Tree-men” up on the North Moors. There’s an expansion of scope: the sense that stories are getting bigger, reaching out further, and running into larger, more frightening things.

But these are just stories about odd happenings at the edge of the Shire: there’s always a sense of immediate and personal threat. Take Gandalf’s description of Mordor later in the chapter. For hobbits, he says, Mordor is like “a shadow on the border of old stories.” Right after this, he even refuses to speak of the Nazgul: “We will not speak of such things,” Gandalf says, “even in the morning of the Shire.” Stories, in “The Shadow of the Past,” are not escapist, despite the mention of Mad Baggins near the start. They’re not even distant. Rather, they are omnipresent, always waiting to press in on the personal.

Frodo and Gollum

None of this would matter, of course, if “The Shadow of the Past” had moved ahead by simply having Gandalf show up, spill out of the history of The Ring, and then leave (this, honestly, is kinda how I remember the chapter going down). But instead of this, the rest of the chapter has a real sense of dynamism, anchored by two central things: the ambiguous relationship between Frodo and Gollum, and the lingering uncertainty about The One Ring itself.

While Frodo and Gollum are more obviously paired later in the story – as Gollum becomes a walking picture of what Frodo could become, a test of his pity, and many other things – I hadn’t remembered it starting quite so early, and I hadn’t remembered it delving quite so deep into Frodo’s or Gollum’s character.

“I guess they were of hobbit-kind,” Gandalf says of Gollum-né-Sméagol’s people, “akin to the father of the father of the Stoors, for they loved the River, and often swam in it, or made little boats of reeds.” Beside the clear hobbit connection, these details tie Frodo and Gollum together on a more intimate level. In just the previous chapter, Frodo’s family history is tied to the Brandybuck’s, known there primarily for their penchant for boating. Given that we really know very little about Frodo’s past at this point, it’s fascinating that this one key detail pops up again so quickly in relation to Sméagol/Gollum. It’s also important that as soon as Gandalf’s story starts to stray into more distant waters – nearly as soon as it leaves the Shire – Tolkien immediately anchors it back to the present, creating a clear tether between Frodo in the present narrative moment and the vast backstory that lays both behind him and ahead of him.

But Frodo isn’t Gollum. Sméagol, Gandalf explained, was interested “in roots and beginnings; he dived deep into pools, he burrowed under trees and growing plants; he tunneled into green mounds; he ceased to look up at the hilltops, or the leaves on trees, or the flowers opening in the air: his head and eyes were downward.” This downward looking, this interest in the roots of things, is only amplified by his possession of the Ring. He’s soon drawn to the depths of the Misty Mountains, since “the roots of those mountains must be roots indeed; there must be great secrets buried there which have not been discovered since the beginning.”

Frodo is tied to Gollum, but kept separate. Though his recent dreams of “strange mountains that he had never seen” seems to parallel the Misty Mountains, there does seem to be a key difference. The downward fixation that permeates Gollum’s story is absent in Tolkien’s description of Frodo. While Gollum burrows and digs, tunnels and dives, Frodo wanders: “He wandered by himself, and to the amazement of sensible folk he was sometimes seen far from home walking in the hills and woods under the starlight.” I’m honestly not sure what this distinction means yet, but it does seem important to me. There seems to be an obsession and fixation present in Gollum’s character even before he finds the Ring, a need to delve into things and find their inner workings, which Frodo does not possess. Rather, he’s portrayed as balanced: he walks over hills and under stars, and seems content to be in the middle.

Shadow of the Past

The One Ring and Tolkien’s Conception of Pity

This push/pull between the characters of Frodo and Gollum leads into some of the most interesting and thematically relevant sections of the chapter: stuff that’s going to be important throughout the rest of the story. The first is Gandalf’s explanation of what the Ring actually does to a person: whoever tries to do such a thing, “does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until every last minute is a weariness. And if he often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades.”

[Let’s all stop for a moment and consider, in light of this, the fact that Gandalf has been allowing Frodo to carry The One Ring around for seventeen years].

I don’t want to delve into exactly what the Ring “is” right now – it’s an interesting thing to think about, and I’d like to explore it more down the line, but I’m also always aware in moments like this of Tolkien’s explicit dislike for allegory. But in any case, the Ring as presented here – its ultimate danger – is the erasure of personhood. Simply bearing the Ring stalls a person out, preventing them from growing and developing and essentially sentencing them to a constant, interminable holding pattern. If they dare to actually use it, then they simply begin to fade away.

This occurs to Sméagol, of course, when he is stripped of his name and becomes Gollum. But more importantly, it also becomes the subject of a disagreement between Frodo and Gandalf over whether Sméagol has truly “faded,” and if such erasure is permanent. Gandalf notes at several points that he is not sure whether Sméagol can be “brought back” in any way, and it ultimately leads to this conversation, one of the most famous in all of The Lord of the Rings.

“What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature when he had a chance!”
“Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well-rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.”
“I am sorry,” said Frodo. “But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum.”
“You have not seen him,” Gandalf broke in.
“No, and I don’t want to,” said Frodo. “I can’t understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.”
“Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

It’s interesting how Frodo denies Sméagol’s personhood at least three different times: he claims to never want to see him, he equates him to an Orc (in Middle Earth, at least Frodo’s Middle Earth, a rejection of personhood), and he says he deserves death. I’m not trying to be too hard on Frodo: he has, after all, had a pretty stressful day. But it’s interesting that Gandalf repeatedly counters these ideas with the concept of Pity – and it’s interesting that Tolkien chose to capitalize Gandalf’s Pity, but not Frodo’s. I’d like to look at that more as we move through the book.

[On a side note: In retrospect, this section of Frodo and Gandalf’s conversation has shaped PRETTY MUCH ALL my views on morality. Thanks, Tolkien!]

But in the end, then, what makes this “info-dump” of a chapter work is the fact it’s not overly concerned about mythology. It’s certainly there: it gives the world context and vibrancy. But it’s not the point of the chapter. Tolkien’s mythology is the backdrop to personal fears, personal dilemmas, and personal questions of identity. Sauron is always there, of course, but the central figure of the chapter, the weight that hangs overhead, is Gollum.

Samwise Gamgee

Before we finish up, I want to talk about Sam for a minute. Sam hovers around the edge of the story (just like Mordor! I’m sorry Sam, I love you): he opens the chapter with Ted Sandyman, he closes it by receiving his mission from Gandalf. At several moments throughout Gandalf’s visit, Tolkien takes the time to mention that the sound of his clippers can be heard through the window of Bag End.

I won’t pull any punches: I think Sam Gamgee is very important. I love him a lot. The Internet is currently really into calling sweet, kind, characters that they love cinnamon rolls, and Sam Gamgee is the Ur-Cinnamon Roll. The One Cinnamon Roll to rule them all. But despite the fact that pretty much everyone loves Sam a lot, I still think he’s underrated. Sam is often depicted as the Loyal Friend or the Trusted Sidekick. That’s true. But Sam is a hobbit of many layers, and I think Movie Sam (who is lovely, don’t get me wrong) made me forget about a lot of them. Let’s take a look at my favorite Samwise moment from “The Shadow of the Past.”

“Sam waved his arm vaguely: neither he nor any of them knew how far it was to the Sea, past the old towers beyond the western borders of the Shire. But it was an old tradition that away over there stood the Grey Havens, from which at times elven-ships set sail, never to return.
‘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.”

There’s an earnestness and emotional vulnerability to Sam that’s immediately endearing. He clearly loves the Elves, even though he wouldn’t pretend to understand them. There’s also a sense of curiosity that’s present in Sam’s character. As we’ll see later, he has a larger awareness of history than most of his neighbors. And while everyone seems to be aware that there are things happening at the borders of the Shire, that the Elves are sailing away to the West, Sam seems to have instilled that awareness with a sense of personal meaning, which makes him rather unique among hobbits. He says that the Elves aren’t just leaving, but “leaving us.” Whereas the rest of Hobbiton is the embodiment of distrusting everything odd or unusual, Sam seems to work under the constant assumption that the world is imbued with wonder. It’s sad when something wondrous leaves, but astonishing when one gets to see it. So it makes total sense that at the chapter’s close, when Gandalf drafts Sam onto Frodo’s Ring-Protection-Squad, Sam would simultaneously leap up with joy and burst into tears.

Final Comments

    • The other chapter from The Fellowship of the Ring that I always associate with info-dumps is “The Council of Elrond.” We’ll see how that one holds up. Interestingly, they’re both the second chapters of their respective books.
    • The “Tree-men” on the North Moors are Ent-wives, right? They’re totally Ent Wives.
    • “I should like to save the Shire, if I could – though there have been times when I thought the inhabitants too stupid and dull for words, and have felt that an earthquake or an invasion of dragons might be good for them. But I don’t feel like that now. I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again.” YIKES. Given what happens later, this almost made me cry when I read it.
    • We talked about Frodo quite a bit above already, but I do want to take a moment to note how much more delightfully sassy he is than I had remembered. Elijah Wood was a lovely Frodo in a lot of ways, but the age difference was not the only change that was made in his depiction. Movie Frodo is all giant eyes and ethereal innocence. Book Frodo pulls far fewer punches. Gandalf: “’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 were also meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.” Frodo: “It is not.”
    • Gandalf fires back, though: when asked why Frodo was chosen for this responsibility, Gandalf says that such questions cannot be answered. “You may be sure it was not for any merit that others do not possess,” Gandalf continues, “not for power or wisdom at any rate.” Jesus Christ, Gandalf! There’s no need for that. You just let Frodo alone with a death ring for seventeen years as the immeasurably powerful Dark Lord who wants it back is gathering strength. For more on Gandalf’s A+ decision-making, right up there with the top-ranking Worst Decisions By People Who Should Know Better, Middle Earth Edition, see Barbara’s excellent article.
    • There is one point in this chapter where reference is made to “the new Shadows in the South, and its hatred of the West.” Feel free to chat about this in the comments, if you’d like. I toyed with talking about it – particularly about how different peoples of Middle Earth are portrayed, for good or ill – but I decided to wait until we have a bit more to work with. I would still love to hear any thoughts, though.
    • Prose Prize! Harder to pick, this week. This section is gonna feature LOTS of landscape description and mentions of starlight, and “The Shadow of the Past” is largely indoors. Still, this is a good one: He found himself wandering at times, especially in the autumn, about the wild lands, and strange visions of mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams. He began to say to himself: “Perhaps I shall cross the river myself one day.” To which the other half of his mind always replied: “Not yet.”
    • If you haven’t read this yet, drop what you’re doing. This is more important.
    • Changing up the art this week – both of the above are done by the amazing Jian Guo, or breath-art on Deviant Art. His work is absolutely beautiful, and will be featured again in weeks to come. Go check out his whole page, though – he has some especially lovely work based on The Silmarillion.

See you all in two weeks! We’ll be taking a look at “Three is Company,” as the world continues to become bigger, but in more immediate, intimate ways for our characters. Pippin also shows up, and nothing is ever again the same.

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