Reading “The Lord of the Rings:” “The Shadow of the Past”

In this chapter, the reader finally begins to learn of the origins of the Ring, not only how it was made and by whom, but also how it came to be in the hands of two hobbits of the Shire and what should be done with it.  It is both one of the most frightening and most compelling parts of the book, because we at last begin to get a glimpse of just how much is at stake with what has transpired.

Only Tolkien could take a chapter that is, almost in its entirety, a history lesson and make it as compelling and forward driven as the more action-oriented parts of the story.  The chapter pulls us along as the story unspools and we at last learn of the many stages of the Ring, from its forging to its eventual location in the Shire.  We also learn of the danger that has now arisen, as Sauron reaches forth his hand to the supposedly safe lands of the hobbits.

This chapter also reveals some of the deep philosophical questions that will continue to percolate beneath the surface for the rest of the novel.  If Bilbo was, as Gandalf believes, meant to find the Ring, and if Frodo in his turn was meant to have it, who is the one that is doing the meaning?  The chapter doesn’t really answer the question.  Indeed, the novel as a whole keeps in tension the possibility of agency and the submission to a higher power that gives mortals the opportunity to make those choices that are for the greater good, without ever knowing for certain what that great good entails in its entirety.

The question of pity and mercy is also one of the deeper philosophical issues raised in this chapter, and now we learn that it is precisely because Bilbo refused to give in to the dark temptation to strike Gollum down when he had the chance that the Ring did not manage to have a greater hold on him.  It is a valuable lesson, and one of those that allows this novel to withstand the test of time.  When Gandalf reprimands Frodo for being too harsh to proclaim death and judgment upon Gollum, he seems to also be addressing us as readers, reminding us all to hold in check our most violent and emotional impulses (a valuable lesson, particularly in the course of an election year).

Thus, while we will not meet Gollum for many more pages, we are already intended to understand him in a more complex and tragic way than we did in The Hobbit.  Learning that he is, however distantly, related to the hobbits that we have already come to know and love so well, grants us the opportunity to see him as something more than just an evil, disgusting, murderous creature.  While he is certainly those things, there is still hope (however faint) that he might still gain at least some measure of salvation, even after all he has done.

Even now, after all the numerous times I’ve read The Lord of the Rings, this remains one of my favourite chapters, not just because of the layers of history, but also because of the depth of philosophical rumination that it reveals.  While it will be several chapters more before we get the same level of reflection (“The Council of Elrond” is also one of my favourite chapters for that very reason), this chapter helps us to understand the larger stakes of the chapters to follow).  After this moment, nothing that the hobbits have so long taken for granted will ever be the same.

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