102) The Shadow of the Past

The Shadow of the Past

Gandalf seldom visits Frodo after Bilbo departs.

Frodo continues to celebrate Bilbo’s birthday, being aware he left with dwarves and is probably still alive.  He might get news – dwarves might carry letters for each other, and Elrond would have contacts.  We are told also that Frodo is believed by the other hobbits to visit elves living nearby.  But he is far from solitary:

“He lived alone, as Bilbo had done; but he had a good many friends, especially among the younger hobbits (mostly descendants of the Old Took) who had as children been fond of Bilbo and often in and out of Bag End. Folco Boffin and Fredegar Bolger were two of these; but his closest friends were Peregrin Took (usually called Pippin), and Merry Brandybuck (his real name was Meriadoc, but that was seldom remembered).”

This is the first mention of Pippin.  Also of Fredegar ‘Fatty’ Bolger, who plays a part in Frodo’s departure and appears again when they return after their adventures.  Folco Boffin is never mentioned again after a small return in Chapter 3:

“Some of Frodo’s friends came to stay and help him with the packing: there was Fredegar Bolger and Folco Boffin, and of course his special friends Pippin Took and Merry Brandybuck. Between them they turned the whole place upside-down.”

Like Bilbo, Frodo seems not to age.  This despite not often wearing the ring.  Yet Bilbo would not have had it on most of the time, so probably possession is enough.

Meantime there are signs of a darkening world, unlike the positive vision at the end of The Hobbit.  There are refugee dwarves, as well as departing elves.  And warnings that orcs are multiplying in the mountains.  (There is a nice cartoon based on this, showing orcs being taught multiplication sums by a brilliantly Orcish school-marm.  If anyone has an electronic copy, please send me it.)

Gandalf seems to have aged slightly from when he visited Bilbo 80 years ago.  Note that he is believed to be a powerful human wizard, and there are others.

We learn something of what he had been thinking.  When he persuades Bilbo to give it up, he was mostly worried about it having a bad influence on his friend.  He now tells Frodo that it may be much worse.  This happens in a conversation reported later on:

“’Last night you began to tell me strange things about my ring, Gandalf,’ he said.  ‘And then you stopped, because you said that such matters were best left until daylight.  Don’t you think you had better finish now?  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.’”

At this point, he had not yet confirmed that this is the One Ring, Sauron’s ring that he will be seeking and must not get.  He then puts the ring in the fire to confirm it.  And Tolkien is correct on basic physics when he has Gandalf say, ‘Your small fire, of course, would not melt even ordinary gold’.  (See ‘Note on Fires and Metals’, below.)

Having seen the writing and knowing that this is the One Ring, Gandalf warns Frodo of the dangers.  He does not then suspect that the Nazgul have returned, meaning that he sees no immediate danger to Frodo.  (See ‘Gandalf, Rings and Ringwraiths’ for more on this.)

Thinking that there is plenty of time, he advises Frodo to quietly leave the Shire, trying to attract as little attention as possible.  And is intending to travel with him.  Yet Frodo is reluctant to go, and Gandalf does not want to try forcing him:

What he does do is explain who Gollum really is:

“‘Very long ago, there lived by the banks of the Great River on the edge of Wilderland a clever -handed and quiet-footed little people. I guess they were of hobbit -kind; akin to the fathers of the fathers of the Stoors, for they loved the River, and often swam in it, or made little boats of reeds. There was among them a family of high repute, for it was large and wealthier than most, and it was ruled by a grandmother of the folk, stern and wise in old lore, such as they had. The most inquisitive and curious-minded of that family was called Smeagol. He was interested in roots and beginnings; he dived into deep pools; he burrowed under trees and growing plants; he tunnelled into green mounds; and he ceased to look up at the hill-tops, or the leaves on trees, or the flowers opening in the air: his head and his eyes were downward.’”

Talking of ‘roots and beginnings’ is a philological joke, according to Tom Shippey.  Beginnings matter, and Tolkien had worked on the Oxford English Dictionary.  But it was an error to just look down and never look up.  Tolkien also has Gandalf say, “all the ‘great secrets’ [sought by Gollum] under the mountains had turned out to be just empty night.”  The origins of words are interesting, but not always very significant.

To return to the narrative: Gandalf also learns from Gollum how he got the ring “’He had a friend called Deagol, of similar sort, sharper -eyed but not so quick and strong.’”  Deagol finds the ring in the mighty river Anduin, where Isildur had lost it but Smeagol wants it and murdered his friend to get it.

Tolkien denied the link with Wagner’s Ring Cycle, but I can’t agree.  Wagner has the raw gold come from the great river Rhine.  It is then reshaped to give powers of command by an evil being.  Always associated with it is a separate artefact for invisibility and shape-changing.  Fafner, greedy for the ring and the other treasure, murders his brother Fasolt.  He then becomes a solitary brooder, also changed into a dragon.  Tolkien’s narrative is a remix of those elements – the ring is even acquired during a quest for dragon’s treasure.

Returning to Gollum: he wears the ring and discovers he has become invisible.  (Unlike the film, the wearer gets no clue.)  He offends, and his grandmother banishes him – she has the top authority, it seems.  He hides under the Misty Mountain and eventually loses the ring, with Bilbo finding it.  And after this encountering Gollum and gives away his name and origins, meaning that Sauron will eventually know where to look for him or his heir Frodo.  One must suppose that this was part of their destiny and the ring’s destiny as laid down by God.

From an immediate viewpoint, why did Gollum lose the ring?  Gandalf assumes this was done by the ring itself:

“‘A Ring of Power looks after itself, Frodo.  It may slip off treacherously, but its keeper never abandons it.’”

I have to wonder what this is based on.  Who and when?  Cirdan had willingly given Gandalf the Ring of Fire.  Thror, the grandfather of Thorin Oakenshield, passed on his Ring of Power to his son Thrain before going to visit Moria.  The Nine seem to have stayed with their original possessors.  And Frodo tries to give away his ring, first to Gandalf and later to Galadriel.

Regardless, Gandalf warns that the ring cannot be thrown away, because such rings have a way of being found.  Nor can it be destroyed by normal methods, even if its owner would allow this.  Frodo cannot throw it into the fire again, even though it was fine last time.  And Gandalf says that even a sledgehammer would not damage it.  Jackson’s film later has this point illustrated with a dwarven axe, just as he adds a scene to foreshadow Boromir’s temptation by having him briefly pick it up when Frodo falls and loses it.

In Tolkien’s narrative, Gandalf refuses the ring, knowing it would tempt him to evil while he tries to do good.  He also does not impose any choices on Frodo.  But Frodo decides he must leave the Shire, to keep it safe:

“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 warns him against going alone.  Then catches Sam, who had been eavesdropping.  And who fears that Gandalf can turn him into something ‘unnatural’ – which is beyond any magic we actually see after the First Age.  Regardless, Gandalf appoints him as Frodo’s companion.

Where should he go?  Nothing more is decided before the next chapter.

Notes on Fires and Metals

Gold melts at over 1000 degrees centigrade, well beyond the heat of an ordinary domestic fire.  People must have frequently used ore-bearing rocks to encircle fires without ever seeing anything unusual.

It is believed that they discovered how to release gold, copper, and other metals from ores while firing pottery.  They began doing this in the Neolithic, the New Stone Age.  Lead, which melts at little over 300 degrees, may have been found first.

Gold, copper and an iron-nickel mix from rare meteorites had been known before that.  So, someone somewhere must have used a stone prop or similar for pottery work and discovered the art of smelting.

It was not a straightforward process, nor safe.  Early on, they learned that copper could be improved by mixing it with arsenic, which is semi-metallic and not very poisonous in its raw state.  But it would cause long-term damage, and traces have been found in the hair of Otzi the Iceman, who had a copper axe.

People soon learned to stop using arsenic and used tin instead.  The much later legends of lame smiths may be a memory of this.

The written forms of those legends date from after the late discovery that much higher temperatures – beyond 1500 degrees – would produce the previously-rare metal iron in vast quantities.  And contrary to the popular legend, this was not a breakthrough by the Hittites.  It happened piecemeal.  It took time to learn how to make iron weapons and tools that were better than the familiar bronze.  The Egyptians were suspicious of iron, thinking it might carry curses.


Copyright © Gwydion M. Williams.