The first infodump: Exposition, worldbuilding, and good old fashioned thematic development!
But first, a brief detour concerning legend:
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; 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 the true events were forgotten.
Tolkien is slyly affirming an idea that Lewis supported in his Narnia books: Myth and legend is often only a few degrees removed from the truth.
Back in Hobbiton, Frodo picks up Bilbo’s penchant for oddity – and also his “good preservation”. He has some solid friends among his younger cousins/relatives, particularly Merry Brandybuck (short for “Meriadoc” – yes, he’s a guy), Fredegar “Fatty” Bolger, and Peregrin Took (aka Pippin). Years pass, and Frodo begins to approach his fiftieth birthday, growing restless.
There were rumours of strange things happening in the world outside; and as Gandalf had not at that time appeared or sent any message for several years, Frodo gathered all the news he could. Elves, who seldom walked in the Shire, could now be seen passing westward through the woods in the evening, passing and not returning; but they were leaving Middle-earth and were no longer concerned with its troubles. There were, however. dwarves on the road in unusual numbers. The ancient East-West Road ran through the Shire to its end at the Grey Havens, and dwarves had always used it on their way to their mines in the Blue Mountains. […] But now Frodo often met strange dwarves of far countries, seeking refuge in the West. They were troubled, and some spoke in whispers of the Enemy and of the Land of Mordor.
That name hobbits only knew in legends of the dark past, like a shadow in the background of their memories; but it was ominous and disquieting.
I love how much menace Tolkien imbues in a name. You don’t have to be told that people hate to hear the name of Mordor, that they fear it – and we still don’t have a name for the Enemy yet.
Then Gandalf suddenly reappears after many years’ absence with strange news about Frodo’s ring…
‘You say the ring is dangerous, far more dangerous than I guess. In what way?’
‘In many ways,’ answered the wizard. ‘It is far more powerful than I ever dared to think at first, so powerful that in the end it would utterly overcome anyone of mortal race who possessed it. It would possess him.
‘In Eregion long ago many Elven-rings were made, magic rings as you call them, and they were, of course, of various kinds: some more potent and some less. The lesser rings were only essays in the craft before it was full-grown, and to the Elven-smiths they were but trifles – yet still to my mind dangerous for mortals. But the Great Rings, the Rings of Power, they were perilous.
‘A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness. And if he often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings. Yes, sooner or later – later, if he is strong or well-meaning to begin with, but neither strength nor good purpose will last – sooner or later the dark power will devour him.’
So we’re finally starting to learn the significance of that poem about the rings, and my first question would be why the Elves would make rings for mortals when they’re so perilous and obviously contradict the natural order of mortality…but perhaps it wasn’t the Elves’ idea so much as the “dark power” that rules the Rings.
‘When did I first begin to guess?’ he mused, searching back in memory. ‘Let me see – it was in the year that the White Council drove the dark power out of Mirkwood, just before the Battle of Five Armies, that Bilbo found his ring. A shadow fell on my heart then, though I did not know yet what I feared. I wondered often how Gollum came by a Great Ring, as plainly it was – that at least was clear from the first. Then I heard Bilbo’s strange story about how he had “won” it, and I could not believe it. When I at last got the truth out of him, I saw at once that he had been trying to put his claim to the ring beyond doubt. Much like Gollum with his “birthday present”. The lies were too much alike for my comfort. Clearly the ring had an unwholesome power that set to work on its keeper at once.’
In the first edition of The Hobbit, the story of Bilbo finding the ring in Chapter 5 was different – Gollum told Bilbo he would give him a “present” if he won their riddle game, with the implication being that he intended to give Bilbo his ring, and when Bilbo won but the ring was gone (because he’d picked it up by chance earlier), Bilbo asked Gollum to just lead him out of the tunnels. When Tolkien realized that story wouldn’t fit with his vision for the story of The Lord of the Rings, he changed it to the story as it’s been in all subsequent editions (Gollum never intended to help Bilbo and only ever said he would “do what Bilbo wants” – lead him out of the tunnels). But rather than completely ignoring the original version, Tolkien made it be a false story that Bilbo told everyone about what happened, even recording it in his “diary” (AKA The Hobbit). A generally honest person like Bilbo suddenly lying to his friends like that (and about what seems like such a trifle) immediately makes the ring appear more important.
Gandalf brings up Saruman here, because in addition to being the head of his “order” and of the White Council, his province is the study of the Rings (both greater and lesser). Still, he can’t quite say what’s held him back from consulting Saruman about his concerns with Bilbo’s ring, except perhaps that Saruman is proud and dislikes other people “meddling” in his area of expertise.
‘But there is only one Power in this world that knows all about the Rings and their effects; and as far as I know there is no Power in this world that knows all about hobbits. Among the Wise I am the only one that goes in for hobbit-lore: an obscure branch of knowledge, but full of surprises. Soft as butter they can be, and yet sometimes as tough as old tree-roots. I think it likely that some would resist the Rings far longer than most of the Wise would believe.’
Gandalf already stands in stark contrast with Saruman – while Saruman seems to be attracted to power and control, Gandalf studies things that appear to have little power, which are nevertheless contrary and constantly requiring reevaluation.
‘Ever since Bilbo left I have been deeply concerned about you, and about all these charming, absurd, helpless hobbits. It would be a grievous blow to the world, if the Dark Power overcame the Shire; if all your kind, jolly, stupid Bolgers, Hornblowers, Boffins, Bracegirdles, and the rest, not to mention the ridiculous Bagginses, became enslaved.’
Frodo shuddered. ‘But why should we be?’ he asked. ‘And why should he want such slaves?’
‘To tell you the truth,’ replied Gandalf, ‘I believe that hitherto – hitherto, mark you – he has entirely overlooked the existence of hobbits. You should be thankful. But your safety has passed. He does not need you – he has many more useful servants – but he won’t forget you again. And hobbits as miserable slaves would please him far more than hobbits happy and free. There is such a thing as malice and revenge.’
Then Gandalf makes his final test, putting the ring in the fire to find those infamous fiery letters – the language of Mordor in Elvish script (since I don’t suppose the Dark Lord bothered to create his own alphabet): One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
‘This is the Master-ring, the One Ring to rule them all. This is the One Ring that he lost many ages ago, to the great weakening of his power. He greatly desires it – but he must not get it.’
The whole “Enemy needs one more thing before he can take over/destroy the world” plot has become a genre staple for a reason – it’s an easy way to draw a character into a conflict that might seem too far away or over their heads for them to do anything about. In this case, an entire peaceful race could be drawn into the conflict because one of them happened to go on an adventure and bring some treasures home…
‘Last night I told you of Sauron the Great, the Dark Lord. The rumours that you have heard are true: he has indeed arisen again and left his hold on Mirkwood and returned to his ancient fastness in the Dark Tower of Mordor. That name even you hobbits have heard of, like a shadow on the borders of old stories. Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again.’
‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’
Tolkien’s version of evil is very much informed by the Christian “theory” of evil: Evil will never be completely destroyed in this world (or this version of the world), but neither can it totally win. Satan may be powerful, but he’s not all-powerful. It’s interesting to note that in The Silmarillion, the source of conflict is an evil valar (basically a “little g” god) who was defeated by the end, essentially banished to hell. And Sauron was only one of his servants. He’s fighting a losing war, but he’s determined to cause as much hurt as he can.
‘So it is now: the Nine he has gathered to himself; the Seven also, or else they are destroyed. The Three are hidden still. But that no longer troubles him. He only needs the One; for he made that Ring himself, it is his, and he let a great part of his own former power pass into it, so that he could rule all the others. If he recovers it, then he will command them all again, wherever they be, even the Three, and all that has been wrought with them will be laid bare, and he will be stronger than ever.
Sauron had thought that the One had been destroyed by the Elves, but it it turns out their plans were foiled by a man named Isildur, who decided to take the Ring for himself (and got himself killed for his trouble).
Then Gandalf changes the scene, telling of a hobbit-like folk that once lived by the Great River, and two in particular: Sméagol and Déagol.
‘And behold! when [Déagol] washed the mud away, there in his hand lay a beautiful golden ring; and it shone and glittered in the sun, so that his heart was glad. […]
‘”Give us that, Déagol, my love,” said Sméagol, over his friend’s shoulder.
‘”Why?” said Déagol.
‘”Because it’s my birthday, my love, and I wants it,” said Sméagol.
‘”I don’t care,” said Déagol. “I have given you a present already, more than I could afford. I found this, and I’m going to keep it.”
‘”Oh, are you indeed, my love,” said Sméagol; and he caught Déagol by the throat and strangled him, because the gold looked so bright and beautiful. Then he put the ring on his finger.
Sméagol was attracted first by the ring’s beauty, but once he discovered that it would make him invisible, he began looking for secrets and anything else that might get him wealth or power. Naturally, he got on a lot of people’s bad sides, and eventually he was banished from his community, but not before they gave him a new name based on a noise he made in his throat: Gollum.
‘Gollum!’ cried Frodo. ‘Gollum? Do you mean that this is the very Gollum-creature that Bilbo met? How loathsome!’
‘I think it is a sad story,’ said the wizard, ‘and it might have happened to others, even to some hobbits that I have known.’
Frodo’s first instinct is to dehumanize Gollum, but the whole point of Gandalf’s story is to show Frodo that Gollum once had a life, too, before he was consumed by the Ring. Gandalf is still holding out hope that Gollum could one day be cured, as small a hope as it may be. He also points out that despite possessing the Ring for centuries, Gollum at least never “faded”. He was reduced to a miserable existence, devoured by the Ring, but he did survive, which was more than you could say for a good many Ring-bearers.
‘There was more than one power at work, Frodo. The Ring was trying to get back to its master. […] It could make no further use of [Gollum]: 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 may be an encouraging thought.’
Even though there’s no direct allusion to an all-powerful God in this trilogy, this idea of Fate (or Providence, as Christians tend to call it) is a constant undercurrent. It is an encouraging thought for me that nothing I experience or do is mere chance, that it’s all part (in some measure great or small) of a much larger and ultimately good design.
And then Gandalf explains how he found out all this about Gollum’s past: He tracked him down and caught him. But not before he ran off to Mordor and (presumably under torture) told them about Baggins, and his home in the Shire where Gollum had been trying to follow him…
‘What am I to do? What a pity Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had the 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 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.’
Well, there’s a sound rebuke of capital punishment for you. And even if it didn’t immediately change Frodo’s mind about Gollum, he definitely remembered this, and it will color his actions through the rest of the story.
Frodo naturally wants to destroy the Ring…then he can’t even will himself to throw it into his own fire (which it had already been through earlier, and not even gotten hot to the touch). Because the only fire hot enough to destroy it is the same fire it was forged in, Mount Doom in Mordor.
‘You are wise and powerful. Will you not take the Ring?’
‘No!’ cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. ‘With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly.’ His eyes flashed and his face was lit as by a fire within. ‘Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused. The wish to wield it would be too great for my strength. I shall have such need of it. Great perils lie before me.’
One idea that a lot of people seem to come away from this series with is the whole “power corrupts” canard, but that’s really not the point. The point is simply that evil means will not ultimately help a good cause, only corrupt the people that sanction it.
At the end of all that exposition, Frodo still has a decision to make.
‘As far as I understand what you have said, I suppose I must keep the Ring and guard it, at least for the present, whatever it may do to me. […] But I hope that you may find some other better keeper soon. But in the meanwhile it seems that I am a danger, a danger to all that live near me. I cannot keep the Ring and stay here. I ought to leave Bag End, leave the Shire, leave everything and go away.’ He sighed.
‘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.
‘Of course, I have sometimes thought of going away, but I imagined that as a kind of holiday, a series of adventures like Bilbo’s or better, ending in peace. But this would mean exile, a flight from danger into danger, drawing it after me. And I suppose I must go alone, if I am to do that and save the Shire. But I feel very small, and very uprooted, and well – desperate. The Enemy is so strong and terrible.’
Gandalf fully supports Frodo’s choice, with one exception – he doesn’t think Frodo should go alone. And then they discover one Samwise Gamgee listening at the window.
‘Get up, Sam!’ said Gandalf. ‘I have thought of something better than that. Something to shut your mouth, and punish you properly for listening. You shall go away with Mr. Frodo!’
Until next time…