LotR Reread: The Shadow of the Past

The talk did not die down in nine or even ninety-nine days.

Tolkien really did write wonderful first lines, didn’t he?

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 fireside-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 favourite character of legend and lived on long after all the true events were forgotten.

It occurs to me that this is … is there a word for an echo that happens before the fact? I’ll make something up: it’s an ante-echo of Sam in Return of the King: “Still, I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales.” Frodo and Sam will be, of course – besides the Red Book of Westmarch, even – but here is a smaller-scale glimpse of that process. Bilbo would certainly have joined Bullroarer Took among the legends of the Shire even if the Party had never happened – but given the Party, and given his flash-bang disappearance from it, the process probably happened a lot faster.

… The general opinion in the neighbourhood was that Bilbo, who had always been rather cracked, had at last gone quite mad, and had run off into the Blue. There he had undoubtedly fallen into a pool or a river and come to a tragic, but hardly an untimely, end. The blame was mostly laid on Gandalf.

He had run off into the Blue, capital B. Into the Wild Blue Yonder. That phrase first makes me think of the Air Force Song (“Off we go, into the WBY”), but one website just defines it as “…a location far away that is appealingly unknown and mysterious.” Far-off mountains are blue; the sky is blue; the ocean is blue; blue is a good color for exploration and the unknown. Had I world enough and time I would go down that rabbit-hole with a vengeance.

Bag End Pantry – illustration by Ra Vincent – used by permission

And how utterly hobbit that the tragic ends the Shire folk envision for Bilbo involved falling into one body of water or another. You know, no one in Middle-earth goes in much for water, really, except for select groups of elves (Cirdan and Earendil spring to mind, the latter being a mariner and the former a shipwright. Oh, and the Teleri, of course. Poor Teleri with their light bows) – but the hobbits (except for those weirdos the Brandybucks) are actively, vehemently anti-water. I say this with “I cordially dislike allegory” firmly in mind: did the Professor dislike water? Something to keep in mind when I finally read the Carpenter biography.

Poor Gandalf. Here he is, slogging the length and breadth of Middle-earth trying to keep everyone – including these foolish halflings – safe to live their little lives … and he finds himself vilified by the whole raft of them. Well, it was all his fault, from Bilbo’s Unexpected Party on.

Here’s another example of Tolkien’s mastery: the book begins with random village folk, talking about what’s going on, including the Party, which leads them to talking about Bilbo (and Frodo). This leads to the entrance of Gandalf on the scene, and, a little like The Hobbit, he joins Bilbo at Bag End for the commencement of everything. And after Bilbo exits with the dwarves, Frodo enters. (I never noticed before that Frodo and Bilbo don’t share a scene, so to speak, until they meet again; their relationship is beautifully delineated without the two of them ever being shown together.) One character leads to the introduction of the next, and the next, and so on. It’s a master class in exposition.

Frodo and Merry were brought in in Chapter One, but both are reintroduced here in Chapter Two. Frodo basically picks up where Bilbo left off, living a lovely bachelor existence, hanging out with his friends and “tramping all over the Shire”. Frodo doesn’t seem to be aging – why? Gandalf told him specifically not to use the Ring – did Frodo ignore the warning? He walks “under the starlight” and enjoys his life to the hilt, and time passes until he’s fifty. But he’s begun to feel twinges of unhappiness that, nice as his life is, there’s a whole world out there with Bilbo wandering in it.

And how amazing is that, when you think about it: Bilbo, at eleventy-one, off walking to Rivendell and beyond like it was a jaunt to the market. Here’s another example of INNB (“I never noticed before”): I’ve always known that Bilbo celebrated his 111st birthday and then left on a journey, but I never thought about it. My mother is 92; she was quite hale until she broke her hip, so maybe six or seven years ago, or if she hadn’t broken that hip, she might have been able to get into hiking shape, but not as easily or eagerly as Bilbo. Maybe hobbits just age better, as well as more slowly. Their twenties are their “tweens”, so comparable to human teens; fifty is more like somewhere in your thirties. Still, ring or no ring, 111 should be ripe old age; you go, Bilbo.

Here’s another ante-echo or two: “[Frodo] found himself wondering at times, especially in the autumn, about the wild lands, and strange visions of mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams.” So it has always been in the autumn that he becomes restless and distracted, not just a result of Weathertop and the rest of his adventures. And he has strange dreams, even before the Quest begins. Is this the hand of Iluvatar? (Random note: Microsoft would like to correct “Iluvatar” to “Elevator”.)

The Professor reels the camera back to a broader view of the Shire, and then zooms in on The Green Dragon in Bywater, where Sam is having a pint.

illustration by Ra Vincent – used by permission

‘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…

This is something that started two trains of thought going. On one track is how much I’d love to be a Middle-earth archaeologist. It would be tremendous to go do a nice scientific dig around about those old towers – who built them? I’m sure there’s an answer out in the Ardaverse somewhere. Who used to live in what is now the Shire? How long ago? What happened to them? Having read The Silmarillion didn’t do much for my knowledge of Tolkien lore (especially Middle-earth geography). I feel like I’m getting there, though.

The other train chugging along is about these lads of the Shire. Frodo’s explored a bit with Bilbo, but if he ever left the Shire it was a) as I said, with Bilbo, who knew where he was going, and b) for fun, and c) not going very far away, with home warm and comfortable at the end of the journey. I never had the impression that they slept out; I would guess that they always went there and back again within a day, rather like Tolkien and Lewis in their own rambles. They never went to Bree, for example. (Frodo and Bilbo, I mean, though Tolkien and Lewis probably never did either.) Merry has a bit of experience in the Old Forest, and in fact seems rather worldly-wise in comparison to the others – but he has never been as far as Bree either. Frodo knows the maps, and Merry starts paying attention once they’re relevant to him, but Pippin and Sam get nothing from them – none of them have any real concept of the scale of this adventure they’re setting out on. (I’ll come back to that in a later chapter.)

As I mentioned in an earlier Chapter Two post, hobbits aren’t very nice folk going by the depictions here. They’re positively brutal regarding Bilbo, and Frodo as well. But – it’s interesting that the one thing that does not seem to contribute to the neighbors’ opinion of Bilbo and Frodo as odd ducks is the fact that they’re both single. Not once does anyone ever remark that either of them should find, or should have found, a nice hobbit lass to settle down with.

The Green Dragon – illustration by Ra Vincent – used by permission

Ted Sandyman really is a pill. Everything Sam says, he feels he needs to, as a co-worker says, clap-back. ‘Take dragons now.’ ‘No thank ‘ee…. I won’t.’ Jerk. And you’ll want to remember that jerk – he’ll show up again before all’s said and done. Sam’s good-humored about it, though, “laughing with the rest” and giving as good as he gets. I should take a page from his book; he doesn’t let the jerk bother him. He lets Sandyman have the last word, and then just pulls back into himself and ponders the work ahead of him, and wider matters. It doesn’t seem to me that very many hobbits really appreciate the stars, but I get the impression Sam does.

Aaaaand I’m still not finished with the second chapter. Not even counting all the stuff I’ve already talked about in earlier posts.

This go-round:
Chapter One: https://agoldoffish.wordpress.com/2018/06/27/chapter-one-a-long-expected-party/

Previous attempts at the Great LotR Reread:
Intro: https://agoldoffish.wordpress.com/2013/01/28/lord-of-the-rings-reread-here-we-go/
https://agoldoffish.wordpress.com/2015/12/26/lord-of-the-rings-reread-here-we-go-again/
https://agoldoffish.wordpress.com/2018/06/11/lotr-reread-no-seriously/
Chapter One: https://agoldoffish.wordpress.com/2013/02/04/lotr-reread-a-long-expected-party/
Chapter Two: https://agoldoffish.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/lotr-reread-chapter-2-the-shadow-of-the-past/

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2 Responses to LotR Reread: The Shadow of the Past

  1. Pingback: Chapter Two: The Shadow of the Past (again) | Stewartry

  2. Pingback: LotR Reread – rabbit hole | Stewartry

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