This is going slowly mainly because it’s taking forever to shape my notes into anything remotely resembling coherence, and I don’t want to get too far ahead in listening to the book.
That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.
Book I: Chap. 2 – The Shadow of the Past
Orcs were multiplying again in the mountains. Trolls were abroad, no longer dull-witted, but cunning and armed with dreadful weapons. And there were murmured hints of creatures more terrible than all these, but they had no name.
Worse things than orcs and trolls? What in Middle-earth could they be? The balrog? Wasn’t it/he confined to Moria? Is this the Nazgûl? But Gandalf didn’t seem to know they were out and about yet – he expresses a hope that they might not stir. The Uruk hai haven’t been unveiled yet … So … what’s worse than orcs and trolls?
We see in this chapter that Sam frequents a different watering hole from his father: the Gaffer drank and held forth at the Ivy Bush, and Sam chooses the Green Dragon. There also drinks Ted Sandyman, who does not make a good first impression, and this bad introduction will be paid off a long ways down the road. Sam, however, wins my heart right off the bat.
‘And I’ve heard tell that Elves are moving west. They do say they are going to the harbours, out away beyond the White Towers.’ 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. …‘They are sailing, sailing, sailing over the Sea, they are going into the West and leaving us,’ said Sam, half chanting the words, shaking his head sadly and solemnly.
One bit which is a wonderful promising red herring that leads to a dead end (to mix more metaphors) is Sam’s talk about his Cousin Hal, who saw what looked like an elm tree walking “up away beyond the North Moors not long back”. It’s a little gift Tolkien gives to re-readers, something which a first time reader might not make note of, but which might make someone coming back to the story with the tales of the Ent-wives at the back of her mind sit up and take notice. I love it – and I think I even love that this never does get a pay off. It’s left a mystery. If only Sam had met up with Treebeard, or Merry or Pippin had been in the Green Dragon that night – but no. I wonder if he planned anything with it and never got around to it, or if it’s just what I said: a little gift, an “easter egg”.
Gandalf’s adjectives for hobbits in this chapter: charming, absurd, helpless; kind, jolly, stupid …
And I’m a little surprised. Gandalf should know better. Helpless? Perhaps; they certainly look helpless, living in a bucolic idyll, firmly ethnocentric, xenophobic, almost fiercely unfierce, almost aggressively unarmed. But just look at how five not-quite-random hobbits acquitted themselves on unexpected adventures. As a people they have fought in the past – I forget which King they sent troops out to support, and there were the wargs that came one terrible winter – and by the end of the book it’s clear that they can indeed take steps to protect themselves.
And “kind”? Really? That isn’t my impression, based on the snippets and snatches of hobbitness the Professor gives. Those show a bunch of snarky gossipy folk who are quick to condemn anything different or “uppity” in their fellows, and who take advantage of any opportunity of food or drink or free money – take advantage to the fullest, and beyond. I don’t know. I don’t like the hobbits very much in this read-through, my boys excepted. They do not take well to surprises – especially surprises which put them out even a little – and they do not take well to anything out of the ordinary: the Bagginses are “cracked”, and the Tooks and Brandybucks no better really, and as for anyone from outside Hobbiton, far less the Shire – well, I ask you.
I think our Gandalf was romanticizing a bit.
I love Frodo’s take on his home later in the chapter:
“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.”
It’s not easy being an odd duck in a small pond, to mix my metaphors. I’ve thought of that paragraph over the past few years, because it’s seemed like there has been an invasion of dragons, or two, in our world. The second part of it, the wish for a safe and firm foothold, is only that, really. Things have changed so much – and not for the better; the shake-up didn’t have the salutary effect Frodo hoped for. In some ways it feels like someone didn’t get the Ring to Mount Doom in time.
I probably said – and intended – that I wouldn’t do much comparing between the book and the movie. I lied.
Here is where it becomes very clear that Elijah Wood – while mostly surprisingly good in the role – was much too young to play Frodo. He’s fifty at the start of the adventure – which is not a human fifty, quite, but it’s also not a human twenty (which EW was in 2001). Coming-of-age is at 33 among hobbits, so that may, maybe, equated to 18 or 21. So 50 would be very late 20’s, ish.
I love that the story is picked up in media res. So you were telling me something last night, but the story became too dark to be told in darkness… Beautiful.
I love the subtlety with which Sam is brought into these events. “‘How terrifying!’ said Frodo. There was another long silence. The sound of Sam Gamgee cutting the lawn came in from the garden.” …”No apparent change came over the ring. After a while Gandalf got up, closed the shutters outside the window, and drew the curtains. The room became dark and silent, though the clack of Sam’s shears, now nearer to the windows, could still be heard faintly from the garden.” Gandalf leads up to revealing that Gollum had made his way to Mordor: “No sound of Sam’s shears could now be heard.”
His fascination for the old-timey tales has already been established, so it’s inevitable that when he draws near the window in the course of his duties and hears snatches of conversation about things of power and history he would pause. He wouldn’t be able to help himself. He’s a joy in this scene, because while he’s heard some of what’s in the wind he hasn’t grasped the half of it. His fondness for Frodo comes through:
‘So you heard that Mr. Frodo is going away?’
‘I did, sir. And that’s why I choked: which you heard seemingly. I tried not to, sir, but it burst out of me: I was so upset.’
And he’s just happy: happy that Gandalf isn’t going to change him into anything unnatural, and overjoyed that his dearest wish is going to come true. He’s going to get to go see elves. I can sympathize.
‘Elves, sir! I would dearly love to see them. Couldn’t you take me to see Elves, sir, when you go?’
I do love Sam. Yes, there was all sorts of stuff in what Gandalf said about fire and doom and evil and all, but – elves! I have to say, I feel the same way.
This chapter is all about the ring. I never noticed before (I should just start using an acronym: INNB) that in the middle of the chapter, after Gandalf has made the revelation about the history, is when the thing goes from “ring” to “Ring” – it becomes an entity rather than just an object.
It’s interesting – and INNB – that when Gandalf wants to test the Ring he is unafraid of handling it. Sixteen years before, the response to Bilbo was ‘No, don’t give the ring to me’. I believe Peter Jackson played this up – the reaction being don’t give it to me, I don’t dare touch it, and this is capped later by “Don’t tempt me, Frodo!”when the latter tries to unload the hot potato. This is followed by, in both movie and book, an expansion on what would happen if the thing fell into hands that already wielded power. In Chapter One, Bilbo goes to put the envelope containing his will and other papers – and the Ring – on the mantelpiece, and it apparently gives one last yank at his will and his hand twitches, and the envelope falls to the floor. “Before he could pick it up, the wizard stooped and seized it and set it in its place. A spasm of anger passed swiftly over the hobbit’s face again. Suddenly it gave way to a look of relief and a laugh.” That’s fascinating. Gandalf took the chance and picked it up – had time to prepare, maybe? Or it’s safer without direct contact or sight? – and was able to set it right down; Bilbo experiences a last “spasm of anger” at someone else handling the Precious – and then, just like that, all at once, it’s gone. It releases its hold on him. Whether it’s simply the fact that he was no longer in possession of it in any manner, or because it “realized” that it would get no further with him, he is very abruptly free.
So now, years later, Gandalf knows what it is, or all but. And rather than “Don’t give the ring to me” he says ‘Give me the ring for a moment’ – and Frodo very much doesn’t want to. It never, ever occurred to me, book or movie, that this was a hazardous moment. This could have been the beginning of the end for the wizard – but my imagining is that he prepared, and steeled himself, and made himself able to touch it for just a moment or two – and not just touch it, but throw it into the fire. Frodo could never have done that, fearing harm to it, but perhaps because he knew there was no danger to it the wizard was able.
According to Gandalf’s tale, Sméagol succumbed immediately to the mere sight of the Ring sitting on his friend’s palm, and succumbed hard; he went from calling Déagol “my love” in such a way that D didn’t think it exceptional, being the best of friends – to wrapping his hand around D’s throat and squeezing. I can’t help but wonder how the whole tale would have gone had Déagol found It when he was alone.
I love this, though: Sméagol always had an investigative nature, apparently wanting to know why and wherefrom. And so it’s natural that when he discovered that no one could see him when he had the Ring on his reaction was to do what a great many teenaged boys would do, only moreso: he began to spy on those around him. It’s the ultimate blackmail tool, the Ring; you can be anywhere, see anything, and as long as you keep quiet no one will ever know – until you (appropriately enough) put the squeeze on them. I wonder how he proceeded? “I saw fill-in-the-blank – give me X and I won’t say anything”? Or just a general announcement to all and sundry “So-and-so did this!” just to enjoy the damage done? Did he spy on the girls’ showers, so to speak? And isn’t it remarkable that the only thing we really know both Bilbo and Frodo used the Ring for in their turn was to avoid people they didn’t want to see (*koffSackville-Bagginseskoff*)? Was there ever a moral dilemma, especially for Bilbo, who didn’t have Gandalf’s early-and-often warnings not to use it?
No wonder there’s so much fan-fiction out there. It’s hard to resist exploring some of these little avenues. Imagine how the tales of the Nine Kings might have played out (assuming their rings conferred invisibility too; did they?)…
Gandalf: ‘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 may be an encouraging thought.’
I don’t know. I think I’m with Frodo: “No, it’s not”. I’m not so sure about the design being someone’s other than Sauron’s. The Ring had gone as far as it could with Gollum; he was never going to leave those tunnels without a literal fire being lit under him, and if he didn’t go neither would the Ring. So Bilbo came along – a traveler, and conceivably the only one who might show up there for a very long time, if ever – and it put itself under his hand, literally. I don’t find it hard to think of it as Sauron’s influence skewing fate and chance. Maybe the “something else” comes in with the fact that it was Bilbo and not any of the dwarves; good-hearted as most of them in that company seemed to be, still, dwarves look at things differently, and I don’t think everything would have ended up as happily if one of them had put his hand down and come up with the Ring. (Ooh, more alternate-universe fan-fiction for the writing!)
Speaking of dwarves and rings, there’s a burning (heh) question left there: of the rings in the ring-verse, ‘Seven the Dwarf-kings possessed, but three he has recovered, and the others the dragons have consumed.’ Okay. But what did the Dwarves (and for heaven’s sake, is that supposed to be capitalized or not?) do with the Seven when they had them? We hear about all the others, the Nine and the Three, but not these, not ever, AFAIK. And what became of the three that Sauron recovered? They never come into play. You’d think they would be weapons to be used in the War. INNB.
I love that dragon-fire is equated with the fiercest and hottest volcanic fires. The only Tolkien dragon we get to meet is Smaug, who’s fearsome enough for one hobbit to take on; how terrifying his ancestors must have been! Ancalagon the Black … what a wonderful name.
“I put the fear of fire on him, and wrung the true story out of him…”
Whoa. If you had asked me, I would have vehemently rejected any idea that Gandalf could or ever would use torture – but there it is. He threatened Gollum with fire, if not worse. And here’s the whole “greater good” question, and the linked idea of ends justifying means. And this is someone who pities Gollum. Imagine if he hadn’t…
Ah yes. That “pity for Gollum”. It’s a wonderful passage:
‘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 judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many—yours not least. In any case we did not kill him: he is very old and very wretched. The Wood-elves have him in prison, but they treat him with such kindness as they can find in their wise hearts.’
And Gandalf is of course correct, in the abstract and indeed in the specific: Gollum very much has a part to play in all of this. If nothing else, as of this page of the book he has provided Gandalf with valuable information. He’s also provided valuable information to the Dark Lord, however. Fan-fiction idea #65: remove Gollum from the book. What if Bilbo really did stab him? (Someone on TBWSRN* had a footer reading “The pity of Bilbo may *&#! up the fate of many” or something like that, twisting Gandalf’s line “the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many”. They weren’t wrong, really.) How would the journey play out without him to guide Frodo and Sam through the Dead Marshes, and so on? Not to mention his final contribution. Never mind that, what if killing him really did have the effect Gandalf is thinking it would: would it have precluded his ability to give it up? What if now, some eighty years later, Frodo was the sorrowing master of Bag End because Bilbo began acting very, very oddly and one day vanished into the bowels of the hole, or into another sunless hole somewhere? Or perhaps was drawn southward by the call to the Ring. Or was killed by someone in his turn. Where might the Ring have ended up?
(I should make a list of the fan-fic plotbunnies. They’re free for adoption – if anyone writes anything based on any of them, please let me know!)
See, now, right up through this scene I can be wholeheartedly sympathetic. I can pity Gollum with the best of ’em. I can shake my head in sad contemplation of what the Ring did to him. Right up until Gandalf says this:
‘The Woodmen said that there was some new terror abroad, a ghost that drank blood. It climbed trees to find nests; it crept into holes to find the young; it slipped through windows to find cradles.’
And that would be where all pity and sympathy dies with a faint squeak.
‘The Shire—he may be seeking for it now, if he has not already found out where it lies. Indeed, Frodo, I fear that he may even think that the long-unnoticed name of Baggins has become important.’
Now, put yourself in Frodo’s shoes. (Heh – I originally wrote that without the slightest bit of irony.) Here you are, a young-ish member of a peaceful, retiring folk who have nothing to do with, want nothing to with other folks’ trouble and strife. You’ve actually met people of other races, unlike most of your folk – but you’ve never strayed past your own borders. And now, suddenly, you find that not only your people and your land but your own family has come to the attention of the biggest, baddest evil your world possesses. Oh. My.
‘… Even when I was far away there has never been a day when the Shire has not been guarded by watchful eyes. As long as you never used it, I did not think that the Ring would have any lasting effect on you, not for evil, not at any rate for a very long time. And you must remember that nine years ago, when I last saw you, I still knew little for certain.’
There’s a lot here. The Shire has been guarded – I don’t know whether it’s stated later (we’ll find out) or whether I’m bringing in extraneous stuff from the movies, but I’m pretty sure the guarding has been done by Aragorn and his Rangers. (Fan-fiction idea #81 – the Rangers On Watch. Why do I get the feeling I’m going to start drabbling again at any moment?)
And “as long as you never used it”… has Frodo never used it? He’s in his fiftieth year, and showing signs of the same “preservation” as Bilbo, who used the Ring regularly, did. And he carries it with him at all times, gangsta-style, on a chain attached to his belt. And he becomes very anxious when Gandalf wants to hold it – much less when it goes into the fire. Never used it? I do wonder. Somehow, knowing the end of it all as I do, I don’t really think Frodo’s that strong.
How are all the Rings connected, anyway? I can’t help but think that today this would be explored in loving and excruciating detail – the precise mechanics of how the Rings were made and what they do and how they intersect would be delved into point by point. Tolkien? “They’re magic rings.” Done. Beautiful. Take a lesson, authors of today.
I wonder if everyone calls the Ring “my precious” because that’s how Sauron thinks of it?
And here’s a good place for a little rant.
Okay, the One Ring is beautiful. (Apropos of nothing, Lucifer is supposed to be beautiful, too.) It is a pure circle of gold, and shines seductively. It is attractive. (So are poison dart frogs.) But I will never, ever, ever understand the fan of LotR who goes out and buys a replica, or gives one to someone they love. I just don’t get it. Of all the reading I’ve done in my life, I believe the most insidiously evil Thing I’ve ever come across is this Ring. There is nothing else to it: it is evil. It is dangerous. It can be used for creation – but anything made through it is corrupt and will decay and fall to ruin, or twist and become malevolent. It can take a good man and rot him from the inside. Bilbo was good-hearted, and strong, but even so the scene in which Gandalf encourages him to give It up is ugly and scary: he nearly pulls his sword on his best friend, who hasn’t even physically tried to take the thing away from him. There has been an ocean of blood associated with this Ring, and untold pain. Look what it did to Gollum. Look what it started to do to Frodo – did do, in the end. And Boromir, who wanted nothing more than to save his people. Look what lesser Rings did to the nine kings who wore them. How, how could anyone ever think “why, I think I’ll get a facsimile of this incredibly loathsome thing and wear it on a chain!” Or, worse, use it as (*shudder*) a wedding ring.
I know, I know – what’s out there is simply merchandising, there is no magic, the things put out by Museum Replicas or the Noble Collection or whoever are just golden(ish) rings with engraving on them. But, see, that’s where I have the problem. If they just produced golden rings on chains and sold them, then fine. It’s a gold ring. But go back to what Gandalf said:
‘The letters are Elvish, of an ancient mode, but the language is that of Mordor, which I will not utter here. But this in the Common Tongue is what is said, close enough:
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.’
The language of Mordor – which Gandalf is unwilling to even let pass his lips to sully the daylight of the Shire. How many more ways can I say “evil”? And what is said in that language is bad enough in English: it will find you, and bring you to Mordor – possibly the last place in all the fictional or real universe I’d ever want to go – and bind you in darkness.
All right, said the merchandise manufacturers. That’s a little icky. We can fix that. And they took their replicas and did this on some: “One ring to show our love, One ring to bind us One ring to seal our love and forever to entwine us”.
Oh my God. I think that’s actually worse than having the One Ring with red-painted elvish letters spelling out the Ring verse.
Look, if that’s your cup of tea, more power to you. But everything about the phenomenon gives me the cold grues. It’s a little like wearing a swastika about. Yes, the swastika was, prior to the Third Reich, actually a symbol of good luck – but since the 40’s it has indelibly meant something very different from what it stood for in the centuries prior. I don’t think there are many non-skinheads who would argue the evil there, and I don’t think there are many non-skinheads who would wear one. The Ring is – being fictional, after all – not remotely on the same level of evil, except in its own setting – in that fictional setting it is, if anything, more evil, being not just a symbol but an active artifact of malice and corruption. There is evil done in its name, as with the swastika – but it also works evil of its own.
I could never do it. And anyone who ever thought to give me one would be someone whose judgment I would forever after question. (And anyone who ever thought to give me one for a wedding ring would soon find himself single again.)
‘Me, sir!’ cried Sam, springing up like a dog invited for a walk. ‘Me go and see Elves and all! Hooray!’ he shouted, and then burst into tears.
Our Sam bursts into tears pretty frequently, as I remember. I’ll have to keep a count. I do wonder – with undertones of relief – why Peter Jackson didn’t settle for making Sam the comic relief of the trilogy. Ah, but I suppose he needed Gimli for the long stretch after the Fellowship is broken. Asked and answered.
And on to Chapter Three. Soon!
* – TBWSRN: The (Tolkien Message) Board Which Shall Remain Nameless, you may recall